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Column: Sex Trafficking Here in Northern Virginia

A couple of years ago, I became aware that sex trafficking of children was not solely an international issue, but one that was happening in our own backyard. Unfortunately, the truth is that it is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world, in the United States and, yes, here in Virginia. In 2011, I began working with Shared Hope International. This organization strives to prevent sex slavery, restore victims of sex trafficking, bring justice to vulnerable women and children, and strengthen Virginia’s laws.

Since that time, the fight against human trafficking has become a top priority of mine. I am committed to fight against those who would do harm to our young people by enacting harsher penalties to those convicted of these horrendous crimes and by increasing public awareness.

According to the Polaris Project, a leading organization in the global fight against human trafficking, over 100,000 children alone are victims of the sex trade in the United States each year. It ranks Virginia 7th in the nation in the percentage of calls received reporting human trafficking. This is not a Top Ten category that any state seeks. Northern Virginia itself is seeing increasing numbers of reported cases of sexual trafficking occurring in massage parlors, online escort services, and gang-related activities among other avenues. Just last year, members of a Fairfax-based gang were arrested for soliciting Fairfax County high school girls for sex trafficking.

Virginia lawmakers have responded and enacted several pieces of legislation including my HB 1898, which raised the penalty for abducting any individual for the purposes of prostitution or abducting a minor for child pornography. In addition, the General Assembly currently has before it my HB 1606, which would stiffen the penalty for soliciting a minor for prostitution. I will continue to look for ways to make Virginia one of the least desirable states for those who seek to harm our young people.

I am not alone in combating this evil. I will continue to work closely with Governor McDonnell, Attorney General Cuccinelli, my colleagues in the General Assembly, Shared Hope International, the Polaris Project, the Richmond Justice Initiative, law enforcement agencies and others to increase awareness of this issue and to institute harsher punishments for those who seek to harm young people for financial gain.

Corporations are also participating in efforts to battle human trafficking. Just last year, AT&T granted the Richmond Justice Initiative $25,000 to develop educational programs to help prevent human trafficking in the Richmond area.

I believe there is no worse crime than one committed against a child. I am dedicated to ensuring child sex traffickers remain behind bars longer for such horrific behavior, so that no child falls prey to those who seek them harm.

One child taken from his/her home, one young person falling prey to this evil, is one too many.

If you would like additional information on this issue, please contact me at 703.815.1201 or delthugo@house.virginia.gov.

The writer is a majority caucus chairman at the Virginia House of Delegates.