By Stephenie Overman
Human trafficking isn’t just a danger in distant countries. Anti-trafficking activists want parents – and kids — in Warrenton, Haymarket and Gainesville to understand that it happens here.
Human trafficking means compelling a person to engage in sexual acts or forced labor. There’s no official U.S. statistics, but estimates place the number of people illegally smuggled and traded in the hundreds of thousands.
“Lots of people think it only affects impoverished areas,” said Bill Woolf, executive director of the Just Ask Prevention Project. “When I first encountered it as a police officer, I thought it couldn’t be happening here. I thought it was a Third World problem. The reality is that it is unidentified and unreported.”
Northern Virginia is at risk because “traffickers want to make money. This is a very economically stable place,” he said. “Money is here to be spent.”
The area is especially vulnerable “because we have the attitude ‘that won’t happen here.’ It’s easier to trick young people,” according to Woolf. And in many households both parents work long hours, while technology allows traffickers to connect with kids who are alone at home.
“It’s a hard thing to grapple with. It’s hard to understand how this happens. Parents think ‘you must have the wrong kid,’” he said.
The Just Ask Prevention Project started in 2013 in Fairfax County but has recently taken steps to relocate its headquarters to Fauquier County. The nonprofit group has trained hundreds of professional and community-based organizations in education, prevention and intervention in suspected cases of exploitation.
“The only way you will be effective in helping to end human trafficking is by being able to identify the signs and patterns of trafficker abuse,” the organization’s website states. “We know that a well-informed public will decrease the ability of trackers to operate and inspire victims and survivors to come forward and Just Ask for help.”
To that end, the Just Ask Prevention Project has developed classroom curriculum to teach students about the strategies of traffickers so that they can know if they’re being manipulated. The average age of exploited children is 14- to 16- years-old, Woolf said, but “I worked with a victim as young as nine. It can go even younger than that.”
The organization hosts community conversations “to look at the scope of the problem, to say this is what we are looking out for, to say ‘here is how we as a community can step up and solve this, how we can engage in real solutions,’” he said. “We’ve been able to support families. Some parents have said ‘my child was a victim but I didn’t know what to do about it.’ We’ve been able to connect them to resources, get them some help.”
The Just Ask Prevention Project has found “a fantastic partner,” in Rotary International, according to Woolf. The Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery also was launched in 2013.
The Gainesville-Haymarket Rotary Club is just getting started with its anti-trafficking program, according to the club’s president-elect Terri Aufmuth. The goal to educate parents and students in western Prince William County “so that they’re not scared but they are aware.”
The group has hosted one event, which featured a woman whose daughter was a victim of trafficking.
“In our area people just don’t believe it is happening. Everybody was dumbfounded by what’s happening in our community and about how her daughter was affected,” Aufmuth said. “To hear her personal story, it hit home. She was standing right in front of them, instead of being a statistic you read.”
Woolf noted that plans are underway to participate in a fall back-to-school program at the Gainesville Glory Days Grill. “When Glory Days has some child entertainment, kids will be able to go to the entertainment while we educate the parents.”
The Fauquier County Human Trafficking Prevention Project started a year ago after Woof spoke to the Warrenton Rotary Club, according to Amelia J. Stansell. Stansell is vice president of the Warrenton Rotary Club and co-chair of the Fauquier County project.
So far, the group has sent speakers out to schools, churches, clubs and law enforcement offices, according to Stansell. “We want to get everybody to understand that it’s not like what you see on television. We want them to realize what it looks like in communities like ours.”
Last year, the Fauquier County project conducted a needs assessment “to see what is happening and what the gaps are. We wanted to see where [trafficking] ties in to homelessness, drugs, bullying,” she said. “We wanted to bring groups to the table to work together.”
The Fauquier County group and Just Ask are working together to establish “safe zones,” according to Stansell. These are “places where people gather and feel safe” such churches, fire departments, hospitals, clubs and recreation centers where employees and volunteers have gone through training on what to look for and how to respond.
All employees at WARF (Warrenton Aquatic and Recreation Facility) have been trained, she said. “There are a lot of kids there. It’s also a place where someone might be scouting. Employees keep an eye out. They can help [victims] feel safe until police and social services get there.”
Law enforcement officials often need training too, according to Woolf. “So many people in the community expect law enforcement to be able to identify and respond. But only about 5 percent of law enforce are properly trained to address the issue. Often they haven’t had any documented cases.”
Just Ask wants to train all kinds of people to recognize human trafficking, he said. “We go so far as to engage field technicians, people who install internet and phone lines, people who repair air conditioning. They have opportunities to observe” and report suspicious behavior.
“Law enforcement can’t be everywhere all the time. It requires the community.”
The best way to protect your child is to pay attention to them and their behavior.
Victims can be from any ethnicity, social or economic group, gender, or level of academic achievement. Some traffickers prefer to focus their efforts on recruiting young people into their enterprises, as most traffickers are young as well.
Traffickers are looking for young people who may:
Lack a sense of belonging to others
Not feel respected or valued by family or friends
Base their self-worth on popularity or relationships
Be willing to keep secrets, including the relationship
Not have a good relationship with their parents
Be looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend
Be often bored with not much to do
Spend a lot of time away from family or friends
Be willing to take directions and believe the lies and false promises
Once a teen is targeted, the trafficker’s process begins:
Traffickers are searching for young people to target and find teens via:
Traffickers relate to young people and often times seem “too good to be true.”
Trafficker manipulation techniques:
Pretend to be boyfriends or girlfriends
Treat their intended victims very well
Listen and act interested in their lives
Lies and manipulation
Traffickers trick or control young people into staying in the lifestyle using methods like:
False love or lies
Threats of violence
What to do? Keep an open dialogue with your teen
Let your teen share what’s bothering them. Don’t force the issue. Listen, but be persistent.
Tell your teen that you love them and tell them often. Tell them you’ll always be there for them.
Show your teen you are willing to listen and try not to judge them when they share.
Never blame your teen for what is happening. Remember they are a victim, not a criminal.
Call or Text 1.833.ASK2END