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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Faith-based groups urge more action to combat human trafficking

More than 100,000 underage girls are currently being trafficked for sex in the United States; it’s happening all over, including right here in the Annandale area.

The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy hosted a presentation June 22 at Annandale United Methodist Church (AUMC) to raise awareness of the problem.

Robin Gahan, director of programs for the Interfaith Center, and Kay Duffield, director of the faith-based Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative, spoke about their organizations’ efforts to prevent human trafficking, provide support to survivors, and advocate for better laws and stronger enforcement. AUMC also has a group working on this issue.

“We need to open our eyes to the scourge of human trafficking, which is a gross violation of the dignity of human beings,” said Anne Murray, co-chair of the interfaith center’s Northern Virginia chapter.

Traffickers look for young girls, usually age 13-15, with lots of unsupervised time and low self-esteem, at places like schools, shopping malls, after-school parties, and on social media sites, said Duffield.

To determine whether a girl might be involved in human trafficking, the presenters said to look for these red flags: expensive, name-brand possessions she can’t afford; no freedom of movement; no control over her own money or documents; a much older or controlling and dominating boyfriend; a large debt she can’t pay off; scripted communications; and explicit online photos.

If you suspect human trafficking is going on, call the Polaris Project’s hotline, 888-373-7888.

Traffickers can be anyone, the presenters said. There was a case in Culpeper where parents were pimping their own children from a car parked at a Walmart. And it’s not just about sexual exploitation; human trafficking covers domestic servitude and youths forced to work for little or no money.

Excerpts from the documentary “Not My Life” were shown, including the story of Angie, a young teen who ran away from home and got into the clutches of a pimp who forced her to work as a prostitute at a truck stop in Oklahoma. He threatened to kill her and her family if she tried to escape.

Sheila, another young victim profiled in the film, told how her pimp beat her up on the crowded streets of  New York City while no one stepped up to help her. “You really feel like you’re not even a person,” she said.

More human trafficking cases have been prosecuted in Northern Virginia than anywhere else in the United States, said Duffield. One case that got a lot of attention was the successful prosecution in 2012 of Justin Strom, a gang leader from Lorton who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for recruiting high school girls for a prostitution ring. Another is a 2013 case involving a woman who operated a brothel at the Peach Therapy massage parlor in Annandale.

Del. Kaye Kory, who’s been a strong advocate on human trafficking in the General Assembly who got Virginia to declare Jan. 11 as Human Trafficking Awareness Day, also spoke briefly at the meeting.

Kory said there’s been an increase in attempts to recruit young girls in our community, especially at Stuart High School and Glasgow Middle School. She’s talked to young teens who’ve been caught up in human trafficking who described how hard it is to escape.

Earlier this year, Fairfax County Public Schools, the police department, and the county’s Office for Women and Domestic and Sexual Violence Services launched the “Just Ask” prevention campaign to educate young girls about the danger of being recruited by traffickers.

After years of failing to get the legislature to specifically ban human trafficking, it was finally added to the state code in 2009. A law passed in 2012 requires the human trafficking hotline number to be posted in strip clubs; truck stop break rooms were added in 2013.

Other recently enacted laws in Virginia require police officers to be trained to identify and help victims, require the forfeiture of assets from people convicted of human trafficking, and require traffickers to be added to the sex offender registry.

The 2014 session has ended but it’s not too early to think about 2015. Legislators can only submit 15 bills per session, so Kory urged the audience to reach out to lawmakers now before their plates are full about the need to crack down on human trafficking.

Virginia does have effective laws, she said, but “we lack enforcement and awareness.” The commonwealth’s attorneys prefer to use the terms prostitution or kidnapping in court, rather than human trafficking. “It’s important to label it for what it is.”

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