Opinion: Commentary: Coordinating Anti-Trafficking Efforts

Opinion: Commentary: Coordinating Anti-Trafficking Efforts

Human trafficking is the business of stealing freedom for profit. It is akin to modern day slavery. Victims of trafficking are deprived of their basic human rights, dehumanized, brutalized, and objectified. Traffickers coerce their victims for labor or sex through force, fraud, and deception. Human trafficking business makes over $100 billion annually, more than Apple, Starbucks, Microsoft, and Nike combined. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally. This is a massive problem and, unfortunately, we have found that there are countless victims, some only young teens, living in these horrific situations right here in our own country and even in our own communities.

As a member of the Virginia Crime Commission, I have had the opportunity to study firsthand the chaos and and damage human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, has had on our Commonwealth. In 2017, the Human Trafficking Hotline reported 156 human trafficking cases in Virginia, 70 percent of which were sex trafficking cases. A closer look at this through the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative reports 526 identified victims, 312 of these victims were recovered from 2013-2016. 94 percent of these cases were victims of sex trafficking. Additionally, according to a 2014 report from the Department of Justice, more than 50 percent of trafficking victims are at least under the age of 17. It is important to note that while some data is available, this does not give the full picture of the problem. Sex trafficking data is scare and has many gaps, due to a reluctance to report crimes.

Victims of sex trafficking are often targeted because traffickers have identified them as vulnerable and highly susceptible to their sophisticated ploys. Victims often do not realize they are being trafficked because they form an emotional and psychological bond with their trafficker. As a result of this, victims are not easily identified and the criminal justice system too often treats them as criminals. No survivor needs to be prosecuted for the unlawful conduct which their trafficker coerced them to do.

Sex trafficking is a multifaceted problem that includes law enforcement, health care providers, social workers, legislators, and the education system. To combat sex trafficking, a proactive and collaborative approach is needed to address all areas of this problem. This includes addressing preventative efforts such as identifying and providing intervention services to at-risk individuals as well as reducing recruitment and demand of prostitution services. Both of these preventative efforts can be accomplished through increasing awareness, education, and training. Furthermore, it is essential to properly identify, recover, and treat victims so that they are able to assimilate back into society and live free, happy, and healthy lives.

Various localities and agencies in Virginia have taken steps to combat sex trafficking; however, there is not a centralized point of contact at the state level or a statewide response plan. The Crime Commission identified this gap and recommended the creation of a Sex Trafficking Response Coordinator. I am proud to take the lead on this critical issue with the passage of my bill, HB 2576, which creates a Sex Trafficking Response Coordinator within the Department of Criminal Justice Services. Thankfully, this legislation passed both the House and the Senate. Additionally, my budget amendment to fund the Sex Trafficking Response Coordinator passed in the Appropriations committee that I sit on and is now included in the budget.

A coordinator will have the ability to organize efforts, conversations, and training among all stakeholders. Identifying gaps in service areas, treatment providers, and resources for victims will allow localities and organizations to establish comprehensive victim services across Virginia. This person will be able to serve as a liaison for governmental agencies, community members, and private organizations to identify victims of sex trafficking. Additionally, they will be able to track and monitor trends for the prosecution of sex trafficking.

Now, Virginia is taking the lead on this issue as one of only three states to have this position. There are many organizations throughout the Commonwealth working to combat sex trafficking and this coordinator will be the crucial first step Virginia needs to align efforts and create a statewide response plan that will save countless lives, many of them just young teenagers.