Human trafficking in Northern Virginia — ‘A crime that hides in plain sight’

Human trafficking is a serious issue that affects every community worldwide. In Prince William County, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares held a roundtable discussion in search of solutions.

“It is a crime that hides in plain sight. Too many people that live up here in Northern Virginia think that, ‘Well, it’s not happening in our community.’ It is,” Miyares said ahead of the meeting Tuesday.

Miyares said that since the pandemic there has also been an “explosion of addiction,” and the addiction is leading to a rise in familial trafficking.

“People that are so in the grips of addiction, that they will literally traffic their sister, their daughter, their child, their family member to try to feed this addiction,” Miyares said.

The meeting was held at a Prince William County police station, which was closed to the media after opening remarks.

Miyares’ chief of staff D.J. Jordan said the decision to close part of the discussion was to allow for “a really frank and genuine discussion about sensitive matters that need to remain private.”

During the opening remarks, Tanya Gould, who heads work on human trafficking cases for the attorney general’s office, spoke of being a survivor of human tracking herself. She said a collaborative effort is needed to combat the illegal practice.

Va.'s Attorney General holds discussion on human trafficking
Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares holds a round table discussion on human trafficking with members of the community, law enforcement and others at a police station in Woodbridge, Virginia, on Sept. 13, 2022. (WTOP/Mike Murillo)

“I’m a survivor and to be purchased is to be an idea or concept that you all may not be able to fully grasp what it feels like. It’s not only the control that someone has over you, that’s not the only issue. But the negotiation of your value, the price, the cost. No human being should ever come to face with such a feeling, someone negotiating over your value for something you don’t want to sell,” Gould said.

John Richmond, with law firm Dentons, served as a U.S. Ambassador-at-Large focusing on human trafficking. He said human trafficking is a $152 billion a year industry, and the majority of those behind it never serve time even when they are caught. He also said according to new numbers from the International Labor Organization, there are around 27.6 million people who are enslaved in the world, which is up almost 3 million people from 2017.

“We’re going in the wrong direction, millions of people are being added to the list of those exploited in the wake of traffickers’ crimes,” Richmond said.

Richmond also said last year, governments around the world reported rescuing 90,000 people from slavery.

“It means 99.68% of victims are currently trapped and they’re wondering, ‘Is anything going to change?'” Richmond said.

Richmond also said that since 2015, global prosecutions of traffickers has dropped 45% and a majority of those prosecuted are sentenced to time served.

“I talked to one trafficker a few weeks ago and I asked him, ‘Are you ever concerned that the police might catch you when you are operating this way?’ And he’s like, ‘Never even crossed my mind,’” Richmond said.

One of the ideas Richmond presented is to take aim at illicit massage parlors, where sex is being sold.

“We know where these places are, and we just allow them to continue,” Richmond said.

Richmond also presented the idea of going after individuals who buy sex in the state, even though it would be a complicated process.

“If you decide to go down that path, and other jurisdictions have from time to time, you will find that you will catch a bunch of teachers and lawyers and judges and police officers, and other people too, so be ready for the blowback,” Richmond said.

Richmond said more needs to be done to help survivors, which includes not arresting children picked up for sex offenses, and instead helping people arrested for prostitution, who are under the age of 18 years old.

“The reality is that, certainly for children, people who have not reached the age of majority, we need to make sure that they are not being prosecuted,” Richmond said.

He also called for more to be done to help survivors of sex trafficking clear their criminal records of offenses that happened while there were being trafficked. Richmond also said there has been success seen in setting up special prosecutorial units that have a sole job of going after traffickers.

Before the meeting, Miyares also talked about some of things his office is already working on, which includes training first responders and school staff to spot someone who may be a victim of human trafficking. He also said more support is needed for victims who come forward.

“One of the things we’re going to be really advocating for this next session is a victim’s fund to treat the victims of human trafficking just like they were a witness and informant for the mob, and where they can get protection, they can get the money to keep them in hiding,” Miyares said.

Also before attending the round table discussion, Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham said that in preventing human trafficking, his departments puts a lot of resources toward missing children cases.

“Those are the young people that are vulnerable, they don’t have adult supervision and those are the type of folks that these predators will prey on,” Newsham said.

Newsham said over his career, he has learned that traffickers tend to operate in areas where they feel safe, and where there are not a lot of police officers around.

“That’s what I feel our (the police department’s) responsibility here is to focus on the issue, and make sure that they don’t get comfortable here in Prince William County,” Newsham said.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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