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Friday, November 1, 2013

Annandale church members campaign against human trafficking

Members of Annandale United Methodist Church walk in the Annandale Parade.
Amid the marching bands, dancers, and antique cars at the Annandale Parade last Saturday was a group with a more serious mission: members of the Annandale United Methodist Church are hoping to draw attention to the growing threat of human trafficking.

“Sex trafficking is not only a problem for adults in the local business community, it’s affecting our children in high schools, too,” says Liz Hoefer, a member of AUMC’s Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. “Our best effort is to focus right here in this community. We can’t stop it, but we can make people aware of it.”

“The main thing people can do is be observant,” Hoefer says. “If you see it, report it. Talk to your children. They should know they are vulnerable and that strangers who talk to them may not have their best interests in mind.” In our community, there are predators on the lookout for fresh victims and brothels operating in apartment complexes. “Human trafficking is more lucrative than drugs, because you can sell a person over and over,” she says.

In many cases, children have gotten caught up in trafficking after a stranger approached them in a mall and started talking to them and complementing them, telling them they look cute, for example, and exchanging phone numbers, Hoefer says.

That could be appealing to a young woman who is insecure. Eventually, the man might suggest meeting his friends and ask if the teen is interested in making some money. The victims are “groomed,” in much the same way a sexual predator prepares a child for engaging in sex.

“Any time a person under 18 is prostituted, that is human trafficking,” Hoefer says. And once a child is ensnared, they often don’t know how to get out. 

The AUMC Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force is working with the Polaris Project and Restoration Ministries, groups that help victims of human trafficking, along with the Fairfax County Police Department.

The AUMC group hosted a seminar on the topic last winter featuring a talk by Barbara Amaya, a human trafficking survivor, who has written about her experiences.

After being abused in her home in Arlington, Amaya’s self-esteem plummeted and she ran away many times. “It was so easy for predators, pimps, and traffickers, who seem to have uncanny radar to seek out damaged children, to force me into trafficking,” she recalls. At 13, she was lured into prostitution on the streets of Washington, D.C., and later New York. She was beaten, raped, and arrested numerous times. 

Amaya now is speaking publicly about her ordeal to shine a light on the problem, serve as an advocate for other survivors, and prevent other young girls from being victimized.

No group is immune, Hoefer says. Youths from every background, every income level and ethnic group have been caught up in this. One human trafficking ring busted by the police was operating in nice hotels in the Dulles and Herndon areas. In any case, “all our children are important to all of us,” she said.

The AUMC group and the church’s youth group are planning to reach out to middle and high schools this fall, she said, and the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force is developing a curriculum for schools. “We want people to know it’s happening,” Hoefer says.

The Northern Virginia task force, formed in 2004, is a collaboration of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, the Polaris Project, and other organizations. Since 2011, 57 people engaged in human trafficking in Northern Virginia have been convicted in federal court. Those cases involved at least 38 juvenile victims of sex trafficking and more than 350 adult victims of prostitution and sexual exploitation.

Earlier this month, the task force received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department; $500,00 of those funds are going to the Fairfax County Police Department for the creation of a new human trafficking unit.

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