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Advocates say Virginia is behind on addressing human trafficking. This is what they say could help the state catch up.

U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber discusses a significant sentence in a Williamsburg labor trafficking case in August 2023, a result of investigation by the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force. (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)
U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber discusses a significant sentence in a Williamsburg labor trafficking case in August 2023, a result of investigation by the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force. (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)


Editor’s note: This story discusses sex trafficking and references child and adult sexual abuse. Please use discretion when reading and listening.


In 2023, federal prosecutors in Virginia secured four new sets of charges against people accused of human trafficking.

Three of those cases made it to sentencing before the end of the year. Seven people face a total of 40 years in prison.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg of trafficking in Virginia, and leaders know it. The National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 140 cases of human trafficking in Virginia from calls in 2021, the most recent year available. Those cases included 179 victims.

State laws make it hard to prosecute human trafficking, and while federal law makes it slightly easier, there are still major obstacles in identifying victims of human trafficking without criminalizing them first.

Advocates and politicians in Virginia know state law and resources need to go toward addressing the problem and while there have been some successes, it's still far from where it needs to be.

“Right now the Commonwealth is further behind than other states in creating a comprehensive solution to eradicate trafficking,” said Brittany Dunn, CEO and president of Safe House Project,  a national organization that works on preventing and training people to identify victims of human trafficking. 

It's hard to know how many people are victims of human trafficking in Hampton Roads, but it’s enough that the federal government funded the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes local and federal law enforcement, victim service providers and prosecuting offices.

Advocates say most official numbers are likely much lower than what’s actually happening. Some people don’t recognize themselves or others as victims, or people report some other crime that uncovers trafficking, said Dunn, who lives in Virginia Beach and served on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Human Trafficking Prevention and Survivor Support Commission.

Dunn said it can be even more difficult to define where in the state trafficking happens most often. Many traffickers will move between jurisdictions or begin their grooming process online.

There are several attributes of Hampton Roads that allow the illegal practices to flourish here and contributed to the creation of the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force.

The military means there are more young people without strong community ties who can be victimized; there are pockets of poverty that could force families to turn to trafficking to make money for basic needs; and the hotel and tourism industry means there are transient populations that can be hard to observe over a long period of time. Plus, Dunn said, there’s high demand for sexual services trafficking victims are often forced to perform.

The task force has existed in some form since 2016 and federal funding has been re-allocated several times since then. Current funding is due to expire at the end of 2023, but Attorney General Jason Miyares said this summer his office would make sure the task force could continue with or without federal money.

“Our preference is obviously our federal partners continue to fund this,” Miyares told WHRO. “If not, we will continue to fund it. The question (is) whether we're footing the entire bill or part of the bill, but we will, if need be. This is a very passionate issue for the Governor. The funding will be there. We're confident.”

The task force investigates trafficking that has been identified. Dunn said it’s also important for Virginia to establish a system to take care of victims and work on criminal justice reform to avoid criminalizing those victims while creating  better ways to charge and punish traffickers.

What is human trafficking?

Safe House Project says sex trafficking is recruiting, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for labor or commercial sex acts by force, fraud or coercion to exploit, keep the person in involuntary servitude or pay off some sort of debt. Any commercial sex act with a minor– money exchanged for sex with a child – is considered trafficking because children can’t consent, so their involvement is the result of coercion or force.

Most sex trafficking victims are children or young adults who are purchased to perform sexual acts in order to make money for their trafficker – usually an adult in their lives. This can mean young people groomed by a potential romantic partner, but it’s usually children who are trafficking victims at the hands of their parents or parental figures.

Most people are familiar with sex trafficking, there is also labor trafficking, where people are moved between employers and then forced into working for an unfair or no wage at all. In many cases, that involves an employer fronting the cost of immigration paperwork, housing or travel and then withholding pay as the victim’s repayment. 

In both cases, there are often instances of physical and emotional abuse occurring and other crimes, like wage theft, drug trafficking or various forms of fraud.

Virginia Beach Republican Del. Anne Ferrell Tata sponsored two successful bills that require hotel employees and health care providers complete training on identifying human trafficking.

“What I've learned is there are two areas of focus in this space,” Tata said. “There's the criminal justice side where you get the perpetrator, but then there's the victim-survivor side. And I decided early on I was going to focus more on survivors (and) victims.”

Sex trafficking often occurs in hotels and many victims come into contact with health care providers before ever being identified as a possible victim. (Dunn’s organization estimates 87% of victims see a health care provider while being actively trafficked and only 1% of those victims are identified as such).

Tata said she’s open to expanding mandated training to other professions, but this year, she’s carrying a bill to certify facilities that help people leave trafficking situations. She likened it to the certification process domestic violence shelters go through in Virginia.

“We know that there are so many well-meaning people that set up aftercare facilities or homes or programs, and unfortunately, a lot of the victims go back because they're not really properly taken care of,” Tata said.

A "very different" way of helping

It can be hard to remove people from trafficking situations, especially young victims, Dunn said.

It’s not as straightforward as physically removing people from the environment, but helping them establish financial stability, find housing and fulfill other basic needs their trafficker often provides.

The Child Advocacy Center at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughter in Norfolk started a program specifically for human trafficking victims in 2008. The caseload was small, but in the last year the program has helped about 250 children and young adults from Hampton Roads who were trafficked.

“It’s a very different type of intervention,” said Daisy Schuurman, the program coordinator of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Program at CHKD.

“These are kids that have been subject to this type of abuse and poverty and maltreatment and witness to violence and all of those things since they were born. We adapted and we have, through trial and error, really figured out what is beneficial to our kids.”

There can be medical components to helping the kids that come into CHKD as trafficking victims, like care following chronic sexual abuse. Often, the children also need mental health care to ensure they aren’t re-victimized.

But most care plans are highly individualized and include more than just traditional health care protocols, Schurrman said.

“It may take them four months before they're ready to have any sort of traditional therapy. And that is okay. That's something that we can kind of balance out and help get them there with our mentoring services or other community services,” she said.

Most of the work in the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Program isn’t billable to insurance or Medicaid, said Erinn Portnoy, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center.

That means the hospital doesn’t receive payment for the service it provides, like it does for something like a physical or stitching up an injury. Instead, the program relies heavily on grants and philanthropic support.

In a larger sense, Portnoy said stronger family services – things like food and health care assistance – could translate to fewer trafficking victims across the board.

“Children at risk are those who don't have their basic needs met and that can include a stable caregiver, that can include not having access to medical care, that can include not having access to a safe place to live,” Schuurman said.

“All of those things can create that vulnerability for the child to be exploited … whether that's through violence, whether that's through drugs (or) whether that's through trafficking.” 

There are still major legal challenges when it comes to how to handle victims and perpetrators under Virginia law. 

Virginia has laws defining trafficking that allows convicted traffickers to get mid-level felony charges. But the state still has a general law outlawing prostitution, which can often create problems for trafficking victims who are older than 18 and end up with a charge. 

It’s one of the reasons Dunn at Safe House Project said training for law enforcement can be beneficial. Officers can, and already do during undercover operations, overlook the act of prostitution and treat victims as such, rerouting them to services instead of jail. 

“We only have a handful of law enforcement agents who really understand trafficking,” Dunn said. “There's a gap both in the training of law enforcement right now, as well as their mandate to execute effectively when it comes to trafficking cases.”

In 2021, Northern Virginia Del. Karrie Delaney introduced legislation that would allow adults charged with prostitution to use their status as a victim of sex trafficking as a legal defense to avoid jail time. It also opens the door to remove a limited number of convictions related to human trafficking from a person’s criminal record.

Olivia Reposa did that after being charged with a number of crimes around Hampton Roads while she was trafficked by a boyfriend between 2014 and 2017.

“(Police) had found me through my trafficker, so they knew I was being trafficked, but they still treated me like I was a criminal . … They still made me feel like a prostitute and not a victim,” she said.

“To be honest with you, even if they had asked, I probably would have said ‘no, I'm not being trafficked.’ The fear of your trafficker is so much more than law enforcement. I would have done anything for my trafficker, even if it meant breaking the law.”

Even before her prostitution charge, Reposa was forced into criminal activity. She was charged with grand larceny when she was pregnant. She couldn’t do as much sex work at the time, which was what her trafficker primarily made her do, so he told her to go into clothing stores, steal clothes and then go back in and return the stolen clothes for a gift card.

“That means you get to not work as hard today. You don't have to take as many dates because you're going to go in and steal to make up for the money that you were going to make selling sex,” she said. “I was like, awesome. … I don't have to take any extra dates today or make any extra money by selling my body.”

Even though Reposa’s prostitution-related convictions were vacated, her charges related to drugs and stealing remain. She said she hopes Virginia law will eventually be adjusted to reflect the full range of crimes trafficking victims can be forced into.

“It's not just prostitution. It's not just residing in a bawdy place. There are so many other things that a human trafficking victim has to do for their trafficker,” she said. 

“I'm hopeful that eventually, someday, this will all come into one.”

WHRO reporter Laura Philion contributed to this report.

Mechelle is News Director at WHRO. She helped launch the newsroom as a reporter in 2020. She's worked in newspapers and nonprofit news in her career. Mechelle lives in Virginia Beach, where she grew up.

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