Students tackle a national issue

Published 11:02 am Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Human trafficking focus of their study

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

For the past five years, Virginia has consistently been listed among the top 15 states with the most reported cases of human trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

And the Hampton Roads region is one of the more prominent areas for the crime.

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In a colored map developed by the Hotline pinpointing locations with the majority of calls or emails relating to reports of human trafficking in 2016, Hampton Roads blazes red.

A class at Smithfield High School took notice of the prevalence this semester, working to raise awareness and draft legislation on the topic. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Human trafficking, often referred to as a form of “modern-day slavery,” is an umbrella term encompassing both forced labor and sex trafficking. It occurs when traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against the victims’ will, according to the National Hotline.

The victims of trafficking do not fit a single profile. It’s been known to occur to people in cities, suburbs and rural areas, and of all different socio-economic backgrounds, according to the Hotline. High risk factors, however, include runaway or homeless youth, whom traffickers often approach in public places, feigning affection. They then use violence, threats, lies or debt bondage to force the victim into participating in sex for financial gain.

Foreign nationals unfamiliar with surroundings, laws, language or culture are also a frequent target of traffickers, who may recruit them into the country under a guise and then hit them with high or unexpected travel fees, making them indebted to them. Traffickers are also known to prey on and exploit emotionally vulnerable individuals who have experienced past traumas or abuses, according to the National Hotline.

Patrick J. McKenna, director and co-founder of the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative, a religious nonprofit that works with victims, called Hampton Roads a “perfect storm” for human trafficking.

“Hampton Roads is consistently in the top three in the state” for reports of human trafficking, McKenna said.

The characteristics that make Hampton Roads a prevalent spot for human trafficking include its military presence, interstate highways, two international airports and one of the largest and most active ports on the eastern seaboard, plus high tourism, migrant workers and college students, according to McKenna.

“If it weren’t happening here, it would be a miracle,” he said.

Trafficking is a relatively low-risk, high profit criminal industry, generating an estimated $150 billion annually, according to a 2014 report by the International Labour Organization. Sex trafficking can occur in a plethora of different venues, including massage businesses, truck stops, strip clubs and hotels, according to the National Hotline.

The Smithfield High class, led by teacher Matthew Ployd, immersed itself in the issue and is hoping its legislation will further aid victims of human trafficking.

The bill will contain two parts, the first part dealing with increasing protection and housing for victims after they escape or are rescued from trafficking, according to senior Kaelee O’Neal.

“So that they don’t have to go back to trafficking,” said O’Neal of the bill’s provisions. “They don’t have to go back to that lifestyle to live.”

The second faction of the class’s planned legislation will be increased penalties for those caught trafficking or pimping, according to O’Neal.

Despite a consistent flow of reports of human trafficking, Virginia did not establish specific, standalone legislation regarding the crime until 2015, the last state in the nation to do so, according to Shared Hope International, a nonprofit dedicated to ending sexual slavery.

The state law currently deems forced sex trafficking a Class 4 felony, and child sex trafficking a Class 3 felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

“I’m supposed to make a difference for those girls and for those people who are being trafficked,” said O’Neal of her feelings on the class’s bill, which she sees as a way to move the conversation forward.

The bill is called “Monica’s Law,” named after Monica Charleston, a guest speaker in the class this semester who shared her experience being a survivor of human trafficking.

“It’s based on her and her struggles with trafficking and the law systems and the justice systems,” O’Neal said.

Charleston was a victim of trafficking when she was 14 years old. She has since become a motivational speaker, working with the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative to raise awareness and educate the public about trafficking.

“I was nervous, of course, at first,” she said of speaking with the Smithfield High School class about her experience. But as the semester continued on, and she and the students developed a close relationship, it became a rewarding experience for Charleston.

“They were just so eager to learn,” said Charleston.

The class’s focus on the topic drew the attention of Congressman Bobby Scott (D-3), who paid the high school a visit last month to hear a presentation of their work this semester, lauding their efforts, and that some of the change needs to come from prosecutors of trafficking.

“It’s not sex, it’s rape,” Scott said of underage prostitution. “What we’re trying to do is get prosecutors to prosecute it as such.”

Scott said that increased resources for law enforcement was also key.

“It’s quite an operation to get these folks trying to take advantage of these trafficked juveniles,” said Scott.

Virginia reported 152 cases of human trafficking with 610 calls to the Hotline in 2016. The state peaked in 2014 with 177 reports of trafficking, the fifth most in the nation that year.

The Virginia Beach Justice Initiative trains individuals to teach classes on human trafficking in regional jails, according to McKenna.

“They believe that they’re criminals, they believe that this was their choice,” McKenna said of many of those who have been trafficked.

“It’s amazing once the lightbulbs start going on around the room” after individuals realize they are victims, he added. “It’s like a whole beginning of a new life.”  {/mprestriction}