Jennifer McClellan: Stop human trafficking

Stop human trafficking
by Jennifer L. McClellan

While a record number of people settled in to watch the Super Bowl last week, a multibillion dollar business was at work. No, I’m not talking about the commercials, but the human trafficking industry. Last week, the FBI announced that it rescued 16 juveniles and arrested more than 45 pimps in a child-sex trafficking operation targeting the Super Bowl. According to the FBI, some of the pimps and their associates claimed to have traveled to New Jersey for the Super Bowl “for the purpose of prostituting women and children.” The sex workers ranged in age from 13 to 17, and some had been reported missing by their families. This is merely the latest, and most high-profile, instance of one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world.

Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar enterprise in which traffickers use force, intimidation, fraud or coercion to make their victims provide commercial sex, labor or services against their will. Due to the hidden nature of the crime, it is difficult to accurately track the number of cases. Estimates from the U.S. State Department and the International Labor Organization indicate more than 20 million people worldwide are victims of some kind of trafficking, with hundreds of thousands of victims here in the United States.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline recently received its 100,000th phone call since its inception in December 2007. NHTRC saw a significant increase in total calls, reported cases of potential human trafficking and calls directly from survivors in 2013: Call volume increased 55 percent between 2012 and 2013 alone, and since the hotline’s first full year in operation (2008), calls have increased 456 percent annually.

In addition, NHTRC received 1,488 emails and 1,669 online tip forms in 2013, and 787 contacts since it launched a text-messaging program last March. Multiple cases of human trafficking were reported in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The hotline has identified a total of 14,453 potential human trafficking cases, with a 52 percent increase between 2012 and 2013 alone.

Virginia ranked sixth in the number of calls to NHTRC in 2013. The Richmond region and Northern Virginia, along with other localities along the I-95 corridor, have been identified as trafficking hot spots. But calls into NHTRC are just the tip of the iceberg.

A 2012 needs assessment survey on human trafficking conducted by the Department of Criminal Justice Services found that in Virginia:

• Human trafficking victims are most likely to be adult females between the ages of 20-39.

• While victims of trafficking in Virginia identified countries of origin in South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe, 53 percent of victims in Virginia were from the United States and 28 percent were from Mexico;

• Types of trafficking experienced by victims were most often sex-related (prostitution, sex tourism) or domestic (au pair, maid, servile marriage).

• Trafficking victims have more severe problems and more complex needs than those of other crimes, including mental health, legal, distrust and trauma-related issues.

• Trafficking victim’s most-needed services include: food, emergency housing, sexual assault services, counseling, and case management/coordination of services.

The three most critical barriers/challenges to providing services to trafficking victims identified by the survey were the lack of adequate resources, problems identifying the victims of human trafficking and a lack of adequate training. The most common reasons identified by victims for not seeking help were a lack of trust in the system, fear of retaliation and a lack of knowledge about available services (particularly shelter and youth services).

For the past several years, the Virginia General Assembly has wrestled with human trafficking legislation. This year, a number of measures have been introduced to address this modern-day slavery.

Sen. John Edwards and I introduced a comprehensive Human Trafficking bill, modeled after the Uniform Law Commission’s Uniform Act on the Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking adopted last summer. SB 373 and HB 716 create new felonies for human trafficking. And they add new felonies as a predicate criminal act under the criminal gang statute as racketeering crimes and to the functions of a multijurisdictional grand jury.

The bills also allow seizure and forfeiture of property used in the commission of such felonies, make sexual servitude an affirmative defense to prostitution and allow a petition for a child in need of services to be substituted for a delinquency petition for certain minors arrested for prostitution. The bills require those convicted of the new felonies to pay restitution to victims and create a civil action for trafficked victims. The bills also require the secretary of public safety to convene an anti-trafficking committee and creates the Virginia Prevention of Human Trafficking Victim Fund.

Other bills before the General Assembly include:

• HB 994 (Comstock)/SB 453 (Obenshain) creating a stand-alone human trafficking offense in Virginia law;

• HB 660 (R. Bell)/HB 757 (Bulova)/HB 803 (Simon)/HB 1155 (Comstock) providing for asset forfeiture for property used in connection with certain crimes associated with human trafficking;

• HB 235 (R. Bell)/SB 454 (Obenshain) adding those convicted of solicitation of sex with a minor to the Sex Offender Registry;

• HB 595/HB 993 (BaCote), requiring mandatory training for law enforcement and teachers regarding human trafficking; and

SB 322 (Ebbin), creating a human trafficking legislative commission.

These measures will help prevent vulnerable citizens from falling victim to this growing problem, address the needs of human trafficking victims and make it easier to bring their perpetrators to justice.