Officials warn of human trafficking in Prince William County, say more awareness is needed

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Law enforcement officials and advocates are raising the alarm about what they believe to be the prevalence of human trafficking in Prince William County.

County and nonprofit leaders gathered Thursday night at Montclair Country Club to spread awareness at a forum hosted by the Prince William Committee of 100.

While human trafficking cases are rarely prosecuted in Prince William, Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney William “Bill” Boge said the ubiquity of local gang and drug activities effectively guarantees it’s a crime being committed under the radar.

Abigail McClaughlin, a detective with the Prince William County Police Department who investigates human trafficking, said the crime is severely underreported because victims, which are most often young women, rarely come forward.

Many don’t realize they’re being trafficked or are ashamed of their actions so they keep quiet. Other victims believe they willingly participated in the manipulation, or are actively committing crimes as part of trafficking and are afraid of consequences, McClaughlin said.

It’s also difficult for investigators to compile enough evidence against perpetrators to secure a conviction, Boge said.

Tiffany Henderson, a representative with the Alexandria-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that Virginia ranks among the lowest states in the country for human trafficking reports because of a lack of awareness surrounding the issue. There has recently been an increase in gang-related trafficking cases in the Washington, D.C. area with kids being moved up and down Interstate 95 from New York to Florida, Henderson said.

“I can at least tell you 10 cases off the top of my head of children that have been trafficked that live here or that are being trafficked through Virginia,” she said.

Commonly confused with smuggling, human trafficking is when a person maintains control over a victim through the leverage of money, threats or fear. Victims are oftentimes vulnerable children who have slipped through the cracks of social services and lack support systems at home or in their community.

While trafficking often involves sexual violence, it also takes the form of forced servitude where abusers convince victims they must work to pay off a debt.

“Human trafficking is telling a person to provide any type of labor or commercial sex through force, fraud or coercion,” McClaughlin said. The crime also doesn’t always involve movement; victims are generally not held captive and are often trafficked by close friends, family or significant others.

The county’s newly created office of community safety, led by Wesley Dawson, is working to lay groundwork to combat human trafficking and other crime by building networks in the community to provide at-risk people with the support systems they need to keep them on track. The office was created by the Board of County Supervisors as part of a broader effort to address rising violent crime.

“A lot of these kids don’t feel like a victim,” Henderson said. “These traffickers are manipulating them in such a way that this is their boyfriend, this is somebody who is taking care of them. And even though there might be extremely violent acts … [to them] it is still better than the situation that they left. And that is horrific.”

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