By Jessica Dahlberg
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – An 8-year-old girl rides her bike through familiar neighborhood streets, her feet pedaling fast as the ground flashes underneath. She doesn’t notice the car that has been trailing her. It is full of men who were told by her father where and when they could find her. Her father sold her to them.
The car pulls over and men grab her, pulling her into the vehicle. The little girl was Elisabeth Corey. When she was growing up in Northern Virginia, she said, her father would sell her to men and brothels for “entertainment.”
Human trafficking survivors like Corey and their support groups are speaking out and working with state legislators to combat the problem of human trafficking in Virginia.
“I always thought of trafficking to be a problem somewhere else in the world,” said Delegate David Bulova, D-Fairfax.
However, Corey’s story proves it happens in everyday American neighborhoods. Among all states, Virginia is No. 7 in the most reported cases of human trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline and the Polaris Project, a group seeking to address the problem.
Experts say human trafficking is prevalent in Virginia because it’s on the East Coast.
“A lot of international traffic occurs here. We have Dulles, Hampton Roads and a major route on the Eastern corridor with 95,” Bulova said. “What makes Virginia rich for commerce also makes it easier for traffickers to operate behind the scenes.”
Until recently, another reason has been the lack of strong laws and coordinated law enforcement against human trafficking, said Sara Pomeroy, founder of the Richmond Justice Initiative, another anti-trafficking group.
But that’s changing as the General Assembly spent the past three sessions strengthening these laws, Pomeroy said.
In 2012, for example, Bulova successfully sponsored legislation requiring strip clubs to put up posters with the national hotline’s number – 888-373-7888.
This year, Bulova secured passage of a law requiring truck stops to display the posters to “alert potential human trafficking victims of the availability of assistance” and help bridge the gap between victims and law enforcement.
“By providing a way for people to anonymously say they think they have seen human trafficking or a victim, it helps close that gap,” Bulova said.
Also this year, Delegate Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County, sponsored a law that added getting money for obtaining a person to a list of crimes that a multijurisdictional grand jury can investigate.
“We have a long way to go before we get rid of human trafficking, but we are ahead of the pack,” Bulova said.
Besides legislators, several groups in Virginia are working to raise awareness and fight human trafficking at the grassroots level.
Carolina Velez works as a sexual violence counselor with Safe Harbor in Richmond. She started working with human trafficking victims a decade ago.
“Ten years ago, it was not a topic people use to talk about,” Velez said. “Now, people are paying attention.”
Although more people are talking about the problem, hard facts and statistics on human trafficking are difficult to find.
“I can’t think of any field in criminal justice where there is more talk and less data,” said Jay Albanese, a criminologist and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Without data, you don’t know the size of the problem. You don’t know whether you are making progress against the problem.”
But Albanese and other experts believe the problem is substantial. “Human trafficking is in the top five of all crime problems,” he said.
That’s because the trade in human beings can be more lucrative than drug trafficking. “Drugs are trafficked, they are used, they’re gone. If you are a human trafficking victim, you are trafficked over and over again,” Albanese said. He said this has a “much higher human cost.”
Advocates like Pomeroy are standing up for those victims.
“It’s everyone’s job to look after those in need, and these are victims who can’t speak for themselves,” Pomeroy said.
Most victims are women age 20-39, according to the Report on the Human Trafficking Services Needs Assessment Survey by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Service.
The survey said most victims came from the United States or Latin America (or were Hispanics living in the U.S.)
Eighty percent of the victims are forced into prostitution or to be household workers. The other 20 percent are forced to do intensive labor. They work in fields, restaurants and in the food processing industry for no pay.
“It is slavery,” Pomeroy said. “The people have no rights, and they can’t leave.”
Just last week, federal authorities started investigating a case at the home of the Saudi military attaché in McLean, where two women from the Philippines say they were mistreated and kept against their will.
Pomeroy defines human trafficking as an exploitation of vulnerability. Traffickers prey on this characteristic. They usually target people who are undocumented migrants, homeless youth or people who are oppressed or poor.
Traffickers promise victims a better life, work and money. They gain the victims’ trust —and then use physical and psychological methods to control them.
“Most of the time the victims don’t think they are being victims of a crime,” Velez said. “It is so psychologically hard on the victims. (Traffickers) make them perceive they are giving them what they are not able to get at home or in relationships.”
Experts estimate that about 21 million people throughout the world currently are victims of human trafficking. From the people she has helped, Velez believes most victims have something in common:
“What has touched me is seeing the resiliency. It’s amazing how people can survive in those circumstances and still have hope.”
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The U.S. State Department’s 2012 report on human trafficking is available at state.gov/documents/organization/192587.pdf.
The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services has posted its Report on Human Trafficking Services Needs Assessment Survey at dcjs.virginia.gov/victims/documents/HTNeedsAssessmentSurvey.pdf.
The state Attorney General’s Office has posted a comprehensive list of Virginia’s human trafficking laws at http://tinyurl.com/va-ag-ht.