One year ago the FBI conducted a nationwide human trafficking sting that exposed more than 150 pimps, 12 of whom were located in the Virginia Beach area.
On Wednesday, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced the contribution of $1.45 million in federal support to combat human trafficking, prosecute traffickers and support victims in Hampton Roads.
“Human trafficking is estimated to be a $150 billion global industry with 20 million victims. We cannot pretend that it’s not happening in our commonwealth,” said Herring. “The hard truth is it exists, even when we don’t notice, and it diminishes our humanity when it is allowed to fester. This grant will help us transform how we fight human trafficking in our community.”
Experts believe Virginia’s central location along major interstates and it’s international points of connection make it vulnerable to human trafficking.
“Human trafficking can take many forms, often manifesting in forced labor or sex work,” Herring added. “Victims can be men or women, young or old. They can be U.S. citizens, or immigrants brought over with false promises of opportunity, or against their will.”
The announcement also included remarks from Robin Gauthier, executive director of Samaritan House, a domestic violence center where the announcement took place, Michael Lamonea, assistant special agent in charge at Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Norfolk, and Tanya Street, a former human trafficking victim currently working to raise awareness and serve victims.
“We will never forget the first time we had a human trafficking victim here at Samaritan House,” said Gauthier. “It was five and a half years ago. All she had were the clothes on her back.”
“Through this grant we are expanding and dedicating space for three additional shelters and can now hire an anti trafficking case manager, pay for counseling services, victim advocates, trauma informed staff, and legal partners,” she said.
The grant will also support a task force dedicated to investigating reports of human trafficking in the region. In partnership with the Attorney General’s office, HSI will spearhead the task force’s law enforcement efforts.
Lamonea provided details about the force’s process to identify and prosecute human trafficking networks.
“We will receive intelligence on potential instances of human trafficking and train law enforcement and community members, like hotel staff, on how to identify victims, he said. “Once leads are identified, investigators will assess instances, prioritize targets, and execute longterm investigations. We strive to get to the root of the problem, not just the low hanging fruit. I look forward to fighting the good fight with our partners.”
Street applauded the efforts of law enforcement and explained the importance of educating the public about the signs of human trafficking.
“There were no resources at that time in my life to support me, so I am so ecstatic to see the community come together with law enforcement,” she said. “To stand here and see you all show up is beautiful.”
Human trafficking is not a new issue in Virginia Beach. In early January, Anna Townsend, a board member for the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative began an initiative to educate local tattoo parlors about human trafficking, and ways to recognize victims. Pimps often use tattoos to brand their victims with names or symbols.
“To anyone out there in a situation that seems hopeless, you need to know there are so many wonderful people and powerful resources to help you,” Herring said. “An incredible network of support is standing with you.”
To report a human trafficking tip or request services please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.
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