VPFW employee Regina Harris, who is on the speaker team at Richmond Justice Initiative, answers questions about human trafficking in greater Richmond and how RJI is helping students fight it.
Growing up in Richmond, I thought human trafficking was something that occurred overseas, not right here in Central Virginia. But when I was in college, I read a Time magazine article that shared the story of a 12-year-old girl in the United States who became a victim of human sex trafficking and was eventually killed. That was the point when I realized human trafficking can occur anywhere and at any time, even in our own backyard.
As I recall, the young girl in the article had met a “boy” on the internet whom she planned to meet at a mall. This “boy” turned out to be a grown man. When he arrived, he told her he was the boy’s father and was there to pick her up to meet his son. What I remember reading – and not in full details, because it was so long ago – was that this grown man lined up “johns” for the young girl. What this means is that she was forced to have sex with multiple men (keep in mind her age – 12 years old) who would then pay the trafficker – in this case the pretend father. I remember the magazine article stating that at some point, the girl’s body was found in someone’s backyard.
What is human trafficking?
Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery: it’s a criminal activity in which people profit from the control and exploitation of others for sexual purposes, labor purposes, or organs. Trafficking has at least one of three elements present: force, fraud, or coercion.* It does not always include physical violence. It could involve threats, lies or other types of manipulation. *Force, fraud, or coercion need not be present if the individual engaging in commercial sex is under 18 years of age.
Victims of human sex trafficking are often forced into a life of prostitution by traffickers without receiving any of the money they bring in. On the contrary, they are often verbally, physically, and sexually abused, and sometimes even physically branded. This is happening right here in greater Richmond.
How prominent is human trafficking in Richmond and the surrounding areas?
Human trafficking is very prominent in the Richmond area. Why? Because Richmond’s proximity to the interstate makes it a prime trafficking hot spot. In 2018, Virginia was ranked 9th in the nation for active human trafficking cases, with 171 new cases and 297 new defendants charged with trafficking that year. Many more instances of human trafficking have gone unreported.
Who is most at risk for trafficking?
No one is immune to human trafficking: victims can be any age, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity. However, some populations are more vulnerable than others. Troubled youth, undocumented migrants, and oppressed, marginalized, or impoverished groups and individuals are common targets.
The average age of entry into child sex trafficking is between 11-14 years of age, which is the target age range for most traffickers. Runaway and homeless youth are especially at risk. Many of these children have been victims of child abuse, substance abuse, or poverty, and/or have been involved in child protective services, juvenile detention, and/or prior sexual exploitation, but not all of them.
Traffickers often target naïve young girls with low self-esteem. They prey upon these girls by offering them the love, protection, and acceptance they are seeking. It’s only after the girls have been lured in that the traffickers become physically forceful or threaten to harm them or their families to exploit them.
How do traffickers access these youth?
Traffickers have been specifically targeting youth online with the rise in social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. These children are also targeted at malls, when leaving after school programs, on the streets – they’re even being recruited by other youth who are being trafficked. That’s exactly why the Richmond Justice Initiative is so focused on educating this age group on how to recognize the dangers and lures of human trafficking.
What exactly is the Richmond Justice Initiative, and why did you become involved?
After learning that human trafficking was a problem in our area, I felt the need to do something, but I wasn’t sure what. A friend showed me a Facebook post for Richmond Justice Initiative, and I knew the organization was exactly how I wanted to focus my efforts to fight this serious problem.
RJI is a non-profit, Christian faith-based organization with one mission: to educate, equip, and mobilize communities with the tools needed to end human trafficking. How do we accomplish that mission? Three ways: in-depth training (for educators, social workers, & counselors), our Prevention Project curriculum for teens and preteens, and church and community mobilization.
What is RJI’s Prevention Project curriculum for teens and preteens?
One of the things we believe at RJI is that in order to eradicate human trafficking we must educate young people on its lures. We invest in character and leadership development within these young people to help them avoid and prevent situations when human trafficking may occur. Think about it this way: If traffickers target victims between the ages of 11-14 years old, why not empower that specific demographic with the tools, training, and resources they need to be aware and prevent human trafficking? That’s where the Prevention Project comes in.
The Prevention Project is as six-lesson curriculum taught in middle and high schools. It builds awareness of what to look for and empowers these students to be what we call “modern day abolitionists.” They are essential leaders for their generation in the fight against human trafficking. Some of the lessons include Sex Trafficking in the U.S., Profile of a Pimp, and Media Literacy & the Over-sexualization of Our Culture, just to name a few.
How can people educate their children about trafficking if they don’t have access to the Prevention Project curriculum in their school?
Your child doesn’t have to attend a school that offers the Prevention Project to get educated: you can also request one of RJI’s free in-depth trainings either in person or via video conferencing. It’s a great avenue for learning more about human trafficking.
Google is also a wonderful resource as there is a plethora of information out there about trafficking. I’ve found the story of 15-year-old Alyssa Beck, a troubled teen from a middle-class family, which includes the testimony of activist Ashton Kutcher, to be particularly eye-opening. The documentary Nefarious Merchant of Souls, which RJI has shown at the Byrd Theatre, is part of why I became so passionate about my role in ending human trafficking.
What is Richmond Justice Initiative’s Benefit for Freedom?
RJI’s Benefit for Freedom is a night to celebrate the 63,000 lives that have been impacted by RJI’s human trafficking prevention solutions since it began in 2009 and raise support for its current and future prevention programs. The event, which is virtual this year due to COVID-19, is Thursday, August 12th at 7 pm. It’s free to attend and will feature testimonials from students of the Prevention Project Curriculum as well as stories from survivors of human trafficking. You can RSVP, purchase raffle tickets, or donate to the Benefit for Freedom here. If you’d like to get involved with RJI, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
What should you do if you suspect someone of being trafficked?
Immediately call 1-888-373-7888 (National Human Trafficking Hotline). This is the easiest way to help someone and alert authorities. The National Human Trafficking hotline connects victims and survivors of sex and labor trafficking with services and support to get help and stay safe. The other option is to contact the authorities yourself and report your concern.
Any last tips for parents?
Pay attention to your child’s behavior and be mindful on what they are doing on the Internet. Traffickers hide on the dark web and can easily gain access to your child this way. Try to have open communication with them about things like sex abuse and trafficking. It can be difficult with teenagers and pre-teens – that’s why Richmond Justice Initiative is here to help!