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Commentary: Combatting Human Trafficking in Our Own Communities

“You’re pretty. You could make some money.” That was the headline of a recent Washingtonian Magazine article about young girls in our region who are lured through social media into the terrifying world of human trafficking.

The piece featured the experience of a Fairfax County girl who responded to that message on Facebook only to find herself utterly vulnerable in a car with four complete strangers. One of the men told her they were going to prostitute her as a type of initiation. She pushed the man’s hands away when he offered her cocaine. When the white powder spilled over the car seat, the man then smashed her head into the window.

She was pulled out of the car and led around the corner of an apartment building. Her nightmare was just beginning to unfold. The man held a knife to her neck and when she refused his sexual demands sliced her across the forearm with the knife. She was raped 15 times that night—first by the man in the car and then subsequently by a string of other johns. Early the next morning, the men called her a “whore” and a “slut” as they drove her home and threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone what happened.

These horrific events happened in Fairfax County—right in our community. That is why over the past four years, we in the Virginia General Assembly have put together a bipartisan coalition that is working with groups like the Polaris Project, a leading anti-trafficking organization which administers the national human trafficking hotline, US Attorney Neil MacBride, and The Richmond Justice Initiative to pass new laws to combat human trafficking.

Our legislation cracks down on these predators and the gangs involved in this activity; increases penalties for those engaged in any way in this inhumane industry; and provides more public information and outreach to victims as well as parents, teachers and faith communities so this crime can no longer operate in the shadows. We used to think human trafficking only happened in foreign countries (which of course it does) or to women illegally smuggled into this country (which is also true). But this growing criminal enterprise knows no boundaries—it is present right in our backyard and must be battled on all fronts.

Since new laws have been implemented, police and federal agents have arrested 28 juvenile sex traffickers in Northern Virginia, and have identified 41 juvenile victims, and 100 reported adult victims—all of them American citizens, a majority from middle or upper-class families. We know this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Three years ago, Virginia was at the bottom of the Polaris Project’s Anti-Human Trafficking State Rankings. Since we began our work with the coalition, my colleagues and I have been successful in passing significant legislation and finding partners in the law enforcement, business and religious communities to collaborate with in fighting this growing crime. Just last week, the Polaris Project announced that Virginia is now ranked in the top category (Tier 1) for our efforts in fighting human trafficking.

We have a great local partner in this effort, Fairfax County Detective Bill Woolf, whose work in cracking down on this crime led him to recommend numerous pieces of legislation to the General Assembly. HB546, which I introduced on the recommendation of Detective Woolf and other law enforcement supporters, provided additional penalties and tools for prosecutors pursuing traffickers, particularly in the area of gangs such as MS-13, who are now operating prostitution rings in our area that exploit local girls.

We also passed legislation that makes the soliciting of a minor a Class 5 Felony. Another bill passed this year, HB1870, would allow a multi-jurisdiction grand jury to investigate human trafficking activities in cases where the suspect received money for procuring another individual to engage in prostitution.

In May we hosted a Human Trafficking Forum to raise awareness of this growing issue. I was joined by our Congressman Frank Wolf, a leader in Congress on this issue; Detective Bill Woolf, our local law enforcement champion battling this crime; our House Republican Caucus Chair Delegate Tim Hugo; Sara Pomeroy, director of the Richmond Justice Initiative; and Dr. Courtney Gaskins from Youth For Tomorrow, a residential facility that works with at risk youth—including those who have been victims of human trafficking. This forum was held as part of our continuing efforts to ensure that residents are educated on recent developments and can help us in preventing and exposing the human trafficking in our area.

This summer, I brought Sara Pomeroy as a guest speaker to our Young Women’s Leadership Program Event. I established this summer program for young women currently enrolled in middle school or high school in the Northern Virginia area. The program's aim is to provide an opportunity for the participants to meet a variety of women leaders involved in various sectors, roles and occupations so that they can ask questions and engage in their own personal and career development. Sara Pomeroy was able to share with the young women her story, talk about how she became a leading advocate against human sex trafficking and educate the women so that they are better equipped to become leaders themselves on halting sex trafficking amongst their peers.

Our community efforts can and will have a real impact on the health and safety of our children and neighbors. Stopping this modern day slavery is very much a 21st century abolition effort. With increased tools to battle this growing crime and a growing group of partners, we can work together to halt this violence in our own communities and throughout the world.