Halting Human Trafficking

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By Rebecca Barnes, Publisher and Katherine Gotthardt, Editor in Chief

Human trafficking is an issue that affects communities around the globe. Every year, millions of men, women and children are trafficked worldwide – including here in the United States and the Northern Virginia area. Anyone could be a victim. Understanding this, federal, state and local organizations are fighting back, starting with education.

Awareness, Education, Communication at Federal and State Levels

Blue Campaign is a national public awareness campaign designed to educate the public, law enforcement and other partners to recognize the indicators of human trafficking and teach how to appropriately respond to possible cases. This effort aims to prevent human trafficking and protect those exploited by the perpetrators. Working closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Blue Campaign creates general awareness training and materials to increase detection of human trafficking and to help identify victims.

According to Blue Campaign, human trafficking is modern day slavery that involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation, false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations. Language barriers, fear of their traffickers and/or fear of law enforcement frequently keeps victims from seeking help, making human trafficking a hidden crime.

Traffickers look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons. This includes individuals exhibiting psychological or emotional vulnerability, experiencing economic hardship, lacking a social safety net or living through natural disasters or political instability. The trauma caused by the traffickers can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help.

Human trafficking is not limited to any race or socioeconomic level, according to Angela Alvernaz, former Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) human trafficking specialist. In 2019, Alvernaz became the first State Response Trafficking Coordinator in Virginia, traveling throughout the commonwealth to meet with schools, law enforcement, hospitals and other service providers to customize resources according to the needs of particular areas and agencies.

Alvernaz is aware that victims come through various agencies, all of which report data in different ways. Her goal is to create a consistent, systematic, statewide response plan for local and state agencies and to stop the supply and demand for trafficking.

“I want encourage the people and agencies I speak with to start helping each other in a different way than we have in the past,” she said. Alvernaz wants to build new paths to reach and identify victims, share information between localities and work with safety concerns.

Fighting Human Trafficking Close to Home

Mary Ellen Smith is the Human Trafficking Prevention Specialist for Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS). Previously a social worker, Smith coordinates the human trafficking program for the schools.

In January of 2020, Smith took part in a U.S. Department of Education webinar, “Identifying and Supporting Students Affected by Human Trafficking,” the first in a series to address the growing response of America’s schools to child trafficking. The event included discussion of strategies being used to support students impacted by trafficking. In her presentation, she said:

We know that trafficking happens all over the United States, and it looks different in different parts of the
country and even in Virginia, we see different trends across the state, but here in Prince William County,
some of our risk factors are that we have two major interstates, 95 and 66, which make it very easy for
traffickers to transport people back and forth very quickly if needed to.

We also have a large number of students coming from other countries who are reunifying with family
members after an extended period of time being away from each other, which puts them at risk not only for being trafficked but also for gang activity. We do have a large presence of gangs here in Prince William County. Our Gang Taskforce has told us we have as many as 33 gangs here in Prince William County which
over the last few years, we did see a strong correlation between gangs and the trafficking where the gangs
were recruiting young victims and trafficking them and actually moving them up into Maryland and other
states for the purpose of trafficking. 

We have many families struggling with homelessness. We have, at last count, 475 homeless students in our
county. Not all of them stay in shelters. They may be going from home to home with family members or friends or staying in hotels and that definitely puts them more at risk of being targeted.

Then we also have a very transient population in Prince William County as well. Marine Corps Quantico is
right here in our county, so we have lots of families moving back and forth out of our area.

On January 29, 2020, in a standing room only meeting at the James J. McCoart Administration Building, volunteers, educators and elected officials attended a human trafficking symposium to learn what is happening in Prince William County to help prevent and address human trafficking.

Smith explained how predators use grooming to entrap minors, which includes gaining personal information, giving gifts, offering a better life and isolating the teen from family and other adults. She also explained the difference between trafficking and sextortion. Sexstortion happens when an adult coerces a minor to produce a compromised photo of themselves. They then can use that photo to manipulate and extort the victim. All this can take a large psychological toll on the victim.

“Sometimes a student that is rude is actually defensive. There’s a lot of embarrassment and shame involved,” she said.

Students in PWCS high schools and middle schools receive education on trafficking. This initiative offers case management for identified victims and public awareness and education for students and community agencies.

According to PWCS, following a 90-minute interactive lesson, students are able to privately identify themselves or friends as possible victims. The students who are identified meet privately with a social worker who assesses the individual needs of the student and utilizes community-based resources to get them the help that is needed to begin the healing process. These resources include medical care, mental health care and branding removal services, as needed. PWCS also works closely with the Prince William County Police Department as a project partner.

You can join the fight to halt human trafficking. For resources to work with your children, visit pwcs.edu/departments/student_services/human_trafficking_prevention.

To volunteer locally, gain information on getting help or to donate to non-profit Action in the Community Through Service (ACTS) prevention programs, visit actspwc.org.

To report suspected trafficking, text the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 233733.

Visit dhs.gov/blue-campaign to learn more about national efforts to halt human trafficking and to find educational resources for a variety of audiences.

Award-winning publisher of Prince William Living, Rebecca Barnes (rbarnes@princewilliamliving.com) has been a business owner for more than 25 years in Prince William County. She served 12 years on the board of the Chamber of Commerce and was a founding task force member, first (co) Chair and a graduate of the first class of Leadership Prince William. Committed to the community, Rebecca is Director of the non-profit Give Back Prince William, as well as an active volunteer for the Occoquan Woodbridge Lorton Volunteer Fire Department.

Katherine Gotthardt (kgotthardt@princewilliamliving.com) is an award-winning author and Editor in Chief of Prince William Living. She is President of Write by the Rails, the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club, as well as a member of the Poetry Society of Virginia and NOVA Bards. Learn more about her work at katherinegotthardt.com.


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