Fighting the Horrors of Human Trafficking in Virginia

The crime was prostitution, but as more of the woman’s story came out, so did the sense that she was a victim more than a perpetrator.

Her experience is one of the “horror stories” that Michael Y. Feinmel, Henrico assistant commonwealth’s attorney, encounters regularly as part of a new local collaboration to stop human trafficking, defined as the selling of human beings for profit. He’s part of an unofficial coalition that includes treatment, advocacy and education as well as arrest and incarceration.

After an arrest, one of the first calls that Henrico officers make is often to Gray Haven, a Richmond-based program for victims of human trafficking, including slave labor situations. “The issue has been here for a while,” said Kathleen Demro, executive director of Safe Harbor, which provides counseling and shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. “The collaboration is new. (We’re) only in the first year of doing it together in an intentional, thoughtful way.” Commonwealth Catholic Charities has sponsored “John School” classes to educate men who buy sex about the consequences of what they are doing. The Richmond Justice Initiative has worked on legislation and education to address human trafficking. Since 2011, the organization has lobbied for 16 bills that were adopted by the General Assembly. Founder Sara Pomeroy has also worked to establish the Prevention Project to educate youth on the false promises and the horrors of trafficking.

People may be contributing to human trafficking problems without realizing it, Pomeroy said. Pornography fuels demand for the sex trade, so people who watch porn may be implicated. People buying low-priced clothing may be unwittingly supporting factories with slave labor. Musical choices may have an impact if lyrics glorify the life of a pimp or the exploitation of women.

If he could design an ideal program to deal with the problem, Feinmel said, he would create a regional task force, because success in one place may simply push the problem into a neighboring jurisdiction. A step-by-step protocol would be developed so officers know whom to call and where to get services. Prosecutors would have a common strategy. A residence for trafficking victims would be created to include drug treatment and psychological care. More volunteers would be available to help victims.

“I don’t think anybody is against the women who are victimized,” Feinmel said. “We need to give them opportunities, as well as the means to get out of the situation.”

Learn more at Katherine Calos’ Richmond Times-Dispatch article: Fighting the horrors of human trafficking.

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