RICHMOND, Va. — “Could you be more specific?”
I looked down at my notes and met Shelly Brown’s eyes.
“Is there a case that really impacted you? What are the injuries you’ve seen?”
“A lot of times you’ll see cigarette burns put out on their skin. They don’t want to disfigure the victim, because they want them to be appealing,” she explained. “We recently had a young lady who tried to escape from their trafficker and he sicked two pit bulls on her.
They violently attacked her and left her for dead in the woods.”
A witness to what may be the worst in humanity. Brown is a forensic nurse examiner at a major trauma center in Richmond.
“What was going through your mind when you saw this patient?”
“Oh my God,” Brown said. “Humanity. How can we do this to another human being?”
While interviewing this patient, Brown says the young woman was a “shell of a person” and was ashamed of what happened to her. But, the trauma goes beyond the physical wounds.
“She will always been in the public health system for mental health,” she said. “[Survivors are] scared. They’re scared that they’re going to jail…They’re scared their families are going to be injured or killed.”
This patient isn’t alone. As of the end of June, there have been 98 cases of trafficking in Virginia to the National Human Trafficking Hotline this year. Last year, there were 156 cases reported.
Brown works with Fay Chelmow, the president of ImPACT Virginia, which is a non-profit group that spreads awareness about human and sex trafficking. Both are nurses and see a need for a new approach to combating this growing issue.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this crime,” Chelmow said.
Chelmow says state laws currently focus on a criminal justice approach to fight this issue. Both women, as well as two other presenters, met with staff members of the Virginia State Crime Commission on Tuesday to talk about how the Commonwealth can develop a public health framework to address this growing problem.
“We’re fighting the opioid epidemic through a public health framework,” Chelmow explained, saying something similar can be done with trafficking.
Advocacy and education would start this, Chelmow says. For example, the signs of trafficking would be taught in the classroom so young people can identify it.
There’s no stereotype for a victim. Chelmow says it crosses all ages, economic-backgrounds and genders. A person being trafficked could be sitting right next to you.
“If they don’t recognize the red flags, then they’re going to fall prey to it,” she said.
Another example would be to streamline the protocols and measures used to care and identify victims of trafficking when they come into a hospital system for assistance. Many hospitals, like the one Brown works at, have procedures to follow. By having all of the hospitals follow the same method statewide, Chelmow says cases could be tracked and the measures could be evaluated to see if care is working
“We will be able to investigate, and evaluate and research to see if that standard of care to see if it is effective,” she added.
The Virginia State Crime Commission developed about 40 recommendations to give to the legislature, some touching on this issue. They’ve been studying it throughout the year.
Some of the ideas include working with the Department of Education to examine prevention strategies for at-risk youth as well as allocating more funding through the Victims of Crimes Act and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund for treatment, services and reimbursement for medical care.
Another recommendation is to create a Sex Trafficking Response Coordinator position within the Department of Criminal Justice Services. This individual would create a statewide plan for when a victim of trafficking is identified, as well as working on treatment and awareness programs.
Chelmow agrees with the efforts but emphasizes a need for a statewide response to the issue.
The 24/7 National Human Trafficking Hotline number is 1-888-373-7888. There was also legislation passed this year to put the hotline in certain health care facilities and at rest stops.