Human trafficking is closer than you think, although Beverly Weeks, executive director of Wayne Pregnancy Care Center, admits she had been like many in the community -- oblivious.

She has since done her research on the subject and Thursday hosted an education forum at the center.

"When you hear the words 'sex trafficking,' you think of dark alleys, you think of states that are not our state. You think of overseas, other countries," she told the audience. "What we have found, our state was No. 10. We have now moved up to No. 8 in sex trafficking.

"The average age that we have found is a teenager that has been placed in trafficking somewhere between 12 and 14 years old."

The life expectancy of someone forced into such a situation, the survival rate, she said, is around seven years -- due to disease, AIDS, homicide and suicide.

"There's word that this does not take place in Goldsboro," she said. "I don't want to cause you alarm but it's time for our community to know, because just yesterday (Wednesday) Jennifer (Marchant, client services director) and I worked with four individuals who we suspect were in sex trafficking in Wayne County.

"It's definitely happening in our area. That's very alarming to me."

The cases can be heartbreaking, she said, since they are not just strangers from faraway places.

She said she recently had a client who had been trafficked at a young age, 8 years old, forced into it by her own mother, a drug addict.

Drug addiction is just one cause contributing to trafficking, she said, with the breakdown of the family and poverty among other possible factors. Runaways and homeless youth also fall prey to being victimized.

Plus, trafficking is not solely sexual exploitation. It can be coerced or forcible labor of any type, from restaurants and hotels to migrant or seasonal work camps.

Azanique Rawl, community outreach coordinator for ENC Stop Human Trafficking Now, based in Farmville, led the two-hour forum.

The neighboring community has developed the Pitt County Coalition Against Human Trafficking, which meets monthly and has a representation of members from such factions as schools, safe houses, law enforcement and other community agencies, Ms. Rawl said.

It is an idea Mrs. Weeks hopes to replicate.

"We want to form an alliance here in Goldsboro similar to what they have in Greenville," she said. "We think this alliance is imperative."

"It keeps everyone accountable because we're all sharing the same information," agreed Ms. Rawl. "We also support each other, making sure we have all the same information, share resources, such as emergency housing and furniture."

The first step is getting the word out and letting the community know more about the pervasive issue.

Education, awareness, prevention and resources are key to making that happen, Mrs. Weeks said.

New laws and legislation are being enacted, Ms. Rawl said.

One of them, Senate Bill 548, goes into effect Jan. 1, 2018, and requires businesses to post the human trafficking hotline number, the state Board of Education to work with the Human Trafficking Commission to develop a policy requiring school personnel to receive training every three years about the topic and requires the Department of Health and Human Services to "study the feasability of training health are providers, emergency medical providers and relevant first repsonders" about the subject.

As for Wayne Pregnancy Center, the education forum was just a starting point, Mrs. Weeks said.

"This will be the first of a series of meetings because we think our community needs awareness, they need education, they need training on how to look for or spot someone in sex trafficking," she said. "I think our desire is for Wayne Pregnancy Center to be that community resource where people can come to us, other than law enforcement, that they can go to ask questions, to get resources, to get more education, to be that go-to organization of our community to help these people, with getting these girls, these young boys, to safety."

For more information on Eastern North Carolina Human Trafficking Now and related resources, visit www.encstophumantrafficking.org.