This story is part of a series focusing on sex trafficking in Northern Virginia.
She stands on the sidewalk outside the mall with her backpack full of 7th grade science and math books. An older man pulls up and she gets in the backseat of his car. He drives her to a nearby motel and sells her for sex a number of times that same afternoon before she returns to her unsuspecting parents. In the beginning, the victims often return home; later they may disappear and become part of a network, or be driven to other locations including massage parlors. Human trafficking of young teens, mostly girls, has become growing problem in Northern Virginia, according to those involved in the issue. Sometimes the girl is complicit, having been enticed by an attractive older man or teenage boy and slowly groomed until she thinks she loves him. Other times she has gotten herself unknowingly tangled in gang-related activity and is threatened if she wants out.
The problem is complex: lack of awareness by teenagers at a vulnerable age, the skill of traffickers to manipulate and groom their victims, the ease of recruitment through the internet, a busy world where parents, teachers or friends don’t ask enough questions about changing behavior, insufficient law enforcement penalties or resources and the denial that it couldn’t happen here.
According to Melissa Snow, child sex trafficking specialist for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), this Alexandria-based organization has seen an increase in reporting of endangered and runaway children in Virginia. She says one out of five reported in 2015 became a victim of sex trafficking. Seventy-four percent of those were missing from child welfare care which means they already had experienced a fractured home life or came from abusive families.
“The victims often feel inside they are dirty and won’t amount to anything. The biggest thing is to get them to understand victimization, what it is,” Deepa Patel, executive director of Trauma and Hope in Springfield.
While many may be puzzled about how a young girl, maybe even their neighbor, could get caught up in this web, Snow said, “We see constantly the importance of online traffickers. They can build trust so quickly because the victim is in her own home where she feels comfortable. The trafficker will spend incredible time finding out the teen’s worries, hopes for the future and then use it against her.”
Patel said: “We all have vulnerabilities, I’m a therapist and I have vulnerabilities; we all do on any particular day.”
Snow added, “A trafficker could arrange a high school party, spread the word and supply the weed and alcohol. The trafficker could send in a ‘bottom girl,’ trusted and under the control of the trafficker. She works her way into the group of girls. At the top of the hierarchy, she gets more benefits like an extra meal or sleeping in a bed and this leads to the girls in the group getting pitted against each other as those who bring in more money get more privileges.”
Beth Saunders, president of The Just Ask Prevention Project in Northern Virginia, said, “Trying to change is a cultural shift. We need to open up a dialogue, not making talking about human trafficking taboo.” Just Ask concentrates on education and prevention working with businesses, schools and law enforcement to “put ourselves out of business by ending teenage sex trafficking.”
Just Ask describes itself as “a public awareness campaign designed to expose the growing prevalence of teen sex trafficking in Northern Virginia and to inspire our community to end the scouting, manipulation and recruitment of our teenagers.” Saunders says she was aware of international human trafficking in her prior role as a business executive. The moment she knew it was a local problem was when her good friend at George Mason University’s Transnational Crime and Corruption Group discussed teenage sex traffic here in Northern Virginia. “There is still a mindset, and I was guilty as well, of thinking trafficking was bringing girls from another country,” she said. “These girls aren’t trafficked; we have the infrastructure set up right here.”
When did then U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) realize there was human trafficking of young girls and decide to do something about it? "I think it was gradual,” he said. “Back in the 1990s on a congressional trip to Albania, we drove by a house where it was pointed out young women had been sexually trafficked." Wolf said, like many others, he assumed this took place in places like Albania. "Then I started to have people come and tell me sexual trafficking of young girls was happening right in our local neighborhoods."
Since Wolf was then chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce-State-Justice, he had money inserted in appropriations legislation for a study of local Asian massage parlors by the Polaris Project in 2011. The Polaris Project is an anti-trafficking organization that administers the national human trafficking hotline. Wolf and Polaris Project Executive Director Bradley Myles at the time acknowledged there are legitimate businesses performing massage therapy that are meeting all the rules and regulations and not offering sexual favors. But Polaris looked through Web sites where men post information on which massage parlors are most likely to provide sexual services and identified 82 in Northern Virginia.
Polaris did not do any further investigation but felt the circumstantial evidence was there to start a vigorous law enforcement probe. The Polaris Project listed 21 cities in Northern Virginia. Wolf held up the a copy of the study. "I can't give you this," but he began reading: "Alexandria, 6, Annandale, 7, Arlington, 2, Herndon, 8, Springfield, 7, Falls Church 5, Vienna, 12." He read on. "Most people are stunned when they find out it is occurring right here in Virginia." The massage parlors are difficult to close down because they are sometimes large operations run by individuals who understand licensing and zoning regulations, who move women from place to place and, if under suspicion, just open a new massage parlor in a different location, he said.
Wolf also had money inserted into appropriations legislation setting up a Gang Task Force across Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax and including the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
He noted the Brenda Paz case in 2003: "She was a 17-year-old girl in the inner circle of a local M-13 gang. She decided she wanted to get out and turned in a lot of information to law enforcement that they didn't have at the time. She was put in witness protection. But the gang found out and planned her killing in a Holiday Inn in Fairfax. They took her to Meems Bottom Covered Bridge in Shenandoah County and brutally slit her throat.” Wolf said fear can be one of the factors that keeps young girls from exposing their situation.
Wolf also wrote a number of letters to then Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013-2014 asking him to take immediate action against backpage.com which, he said, has been found to be a conduit for the buying and selling of human beings, including children. In a hand-written note at the bottom of his letter dated March 27, 2013, Wolf wrote, "I hope you will act on this. If you do not, you will regret it every time you see a story about someone being exploited like this. Please act. To whom much is given, much is required. You have been given the ability to help, please do so." Wolf said, "He had the capacity to shut it down. I don't know why he didn't."
When did recognition of the problem begin for U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-10) who was active on the issue of human trafficking in the state legislature representing the 34th District before filling Wolf’s congressional seat in 2014? Comstock said she thought it was when she met a woman in her 20s or 30s who had been a victim when she was a 13-14 year old. She learned that Virginia had one of the lowest ratings of enforcement against human trafficking in all the states. During 2012-13 she co-patroned a number of a bills in the state legislature addressing the growth of gangs and increasing the penalty from a misdemeanor for soliciting a minor age 16 or 17 and under for prostitution to a Class Six felony and soliciting a minor under 16 to a Class Five penalty. Comstock worked with Del. Tim Hugo (R-40) who sponsored Virginia’s first stand-alone human trafficking statute. Hugo said last July after it went into effect, “Until today, Virginia was the only state in the nation without a decided human trafficking law and was one of only two states that did not specifically criminalize sex trafficking.”
Comstock said Fairfax County Detective Bill Woolf was instrumental in recommending legislation to her that was needed. "He said we are on the street and we need legislation to increase penalties,” she said. "Woolf is a knight in shining armor; he has done so much for this cause."
Comstock explained that 12-13 year olds were being targeted and youngsters, parents, teachers and the public and to be educated about how it happens. Sexual traffickers use social media or they pick up a girl at a bus stop or mall. "They say, you are really pretty; why don't you meet me on Saturday at the mall? Don’t tell your parents. They groom the girls who eventually think they are in love. Then," she said, "they say, I love you baby, baby and I need money so would you have sex for money for me." The girls are hooked.
Comstock said the first month she was in Congress in 2014 she signed on as a cosponsor to eight pieces of legislation addressing human trafficking introduced by both Democrats and Republicans and became a member of the Human Trafficking Caucus. All bills have passed the House and some of them were packaged and passed by the Senate and signed by the President. Now that Comstock is working at the Federal level, she finds it is possible to move beyond changing Virginia laws to support legislation with a national impact. She was part of an international Catholic delegation to Rome in 2013. They met with the Pope and emphasized the importance of the problem of human trafficking world-wide. "And the Pope has been speaking out about it."
As a gangs detective in Fairfax County, Woolf said he became aware of the scope of the problem the night when an informant who had been injected into M-13 gang came back and said he thought the gang was making money from prostitution. The informant was uncomfortable that night because one girl looked so young. It hadn't registered until then. "I thought the girls must have been consensually having sex and that sex trafficking only happened in third world countries." But that night they recovered a 16-year-old girl. Since then Woolf has interviewed 300 recovered victims.
He said he had been working for 10 years as a police officer at the time but didn’t have any training in human trafficking and what to do. There was no such thing as a human trafficking detective in Northern Virginia. I saw the need and started working it." He continued, "Traffickers work in the schools. Victims come from every high school in the county."
Sometimes it is a high school student recruiting in his own school. But Elizabeth Payne, coordinator for Health, Family Life Education and Physical Education for Fairfax County Public Schools, said a new education program established in the county’s middle and high schools in 2012 seems to be getting results. She said Woolf recently told her about a middle school student who heard about sexual trafficking in her class and realized this was happening to her friend. The girl told an adult teacher she trusted and the victim was recovered along with several other girls in the same school. “I think Detective Woolf was the first one to break a case, and they just kept coming. It involved so many of our students in high schools of different ethnicities and demographics. We knew we had to do something.”
Woolf said one of the problems is resources. It takes so much time to find one trafficker and there are so many law enforcement priorities. The trafficking doesn't happen overnight which makes it difficult to follow and prosecute. These cases can take months. "I've been putting bad guys away for a long time but it takes a lot."
Part of the problem, he said, is that “the parents blame their own daughters, the victims. It was you, you, you and they never ask what happened." He remembers the saddest victim recovered at 17 who had been trafficked since 14. Her mother recognized there was a behavioral problem and called in social workers and counselors. No one discovered the problem until they recovered her in a motel. "I asked her [the teen] how this is possible that no one knew what was going on, and she said no one ever asked me. We got her help but her teenage years were stripped away from her and then all the psychological issues of what had happened to her.”
Patel said, “The victims struggle to form relationships after they have been recovered; they lack appropriate boundaries, struggle to identify unhealthy situations.” She said with appropriate intervention they are still at risk but can be much better off.
National Human Trafficking Resource Center
President Beth Saunders
10660 Page Avenue #4161
Fairfax, VA 22030
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
Charles B. Wang International Children’s Building
699 Prince St.
Alexandria, VA 22314-3175
24-hour call center: 1-800-THE-LOST
Trauma and Hope
Deepa R. Patel CSOTP, LCSW
5415-C Backlick Road
Springfield, VA 22151
Fairfax County Public Schools
Liz Payne, Ed.D.
K-12 Coordinator for Health, Family Life Education, and Physical Education
8270 Willow Oaks Corporate Drive #4004
Fairfax, VA 22013
Fairfax County Police Department
Detective William Woolf
(Detective John Spata assumed this position April 1)