Human Trafficking in our Backyard

Posted: May 16, 2013 at 7:53 pm, Last Updated: May 28, 2013 at 6:32 pm

by Judy Deane

Human Trafficking in our Backyard was the title of a forum organized by a Northern Virginia Congressman and two Virginia state delegates, which offered a sobering look at sex trafficking in the Northern Virginia region, an area covering five of the ten richest counties in the US, according to the latest Forbes Magazine tally.

In his keynote, Congressman Frank Wolf said that reliable NGOs estimate that at least 100,000 American children are being exploited through pornography or prostitution every year. According to US law, any child in prostitution is considered a victim of human trafficking.

A few more statistics stand out: The average age of induction for girls in the US is 12-14. The majority of these children are U.S. born. Bill Wolff, a detective from the Fairfax County anti-trafficking task force explained the basic economics that have made sex trafficking one of the fastest growing illegal industries, even in a wealthy community like McLean. From just two young girls, a pimp can typically earn $15,000 a month, or $180,000 a year. Not only is the income tax free, but there is little or no capital investment – beyond perhaps a cellphone and some clothes for the girls. And the girls are a “renewable resource.” If they get arrested or hurt, the pimp easily finds new girls. Compare this to drug dealers, who have to pay money upfront for drugs, lose it all if the drugs are seized, and risk long jail sentences if they are caught.

Wolff’s description of the pimps was not unexpected: many are members of the 300 gangs that have been identified in Northern Virginia, which include approximately 5000 members. The Crips and MS-13, in particular, are notorious for their violence and involvement in sex trafficking. Their victims, he said, include runaways, who are traditionally considered especially vulnerable to trafficking.

But there is a growing trend, according to Wolff, to recruit girls from economically-stable households with busy parents. The traffickers meet them at their schools, at the bus stops or in shopping malls, or increasingly, through Facebook and other social media. The traffickers are targeting personal vulnerability, rather than economic vulnerability in their victims. So they go online, seeking young teens who are lonely, insecure, and feel alienated from their parents. Wolff said that Facebook and other social media sites are a treasure trove for traffickers, because teens post freely about their emotional state, their feelings, and their anger at their parents. The pimps then meet up with these girls, who are at first flattered by their attention, and then intimidated into prostitution. In many cases, the girls continue to live at home and go to school, but become increasingly troubled, angry and withdrawn from their families.

Strengthening the penalties for consumers of child pornography and prostitution is one part of the solution, according to Virginia State Delegates Barbara Comstock and Tim Hugo, who co-sponsored the forum. They reported that the most recent session of the Virginia Assembly increased the penalties for people convicted of soliciting minors for pornography or prostitution, which is currently classed as a misdemeanor. As of July 1 it will be a felony.

Raising awareness, educating potential trafficking victims, and increasing community involvement are other essential elements in a solution. The remainder of the panel introduced Virginia-based organizations that work against human trafficking. These ranged from organizations with a national focus, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, to smaller NGOs such as the Richmond Justice Initiative, whose “Prevention Project” focuses on educating local high school students high on the dangers of trafficking. Another local organization, Youth for Tomorrow, provides housing, counseling, medical care and education for young victims of sex trafficking at its 200 acre campus in Prince William County.

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu