New recommendations to tackle sex trafficking move ‘beyond law enforcement response’

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. — New recommendations are coming forward from the Virginia State Crime Commission on how to tackle sex trafficking and exploitation of children.

The commission did a study on the growing issue and how the Commonwealth is handling it.

“It’s alarming. it’s a big problem and it’s bigger than most of us realize,” Del. Paul Krizek (D – District 44) said.

In 2017, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking for sex and cheap or free employment. Last year, the state reported 156 cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. 70 percent of those were sex trafficking.

“What used to be on the corner of a seedy area can now occur anywhere,” Colin Drabert, the Deputy Director of the commission, said.

Trafficking is happening on all corners of the internet, Drabert explained. Postings happen on social media and back pages of websites, advertising for what prostitutes can do for customers.

“It’ is a crime that is hidden but it occurs in plain sight,” Eliza Reock from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children explained. NCMEC was also at the meeting, presenting on child sex trafficking. Most of the victims are between 9 and 12 years old. The study also touches on youth.

“In order to address the root causes of sex trafficking, Virginia needs to move beyond the law enforcement response,” Colin Drabert, the Deputy Director of the commission, said. “Sex trafficking intersects with so many areas of law and issues that Virginia are facing. So by addressing sex trafficking, we’re not just addressing the trafficker and the ‘prostitute’. You’re looking at a child and sex abuse, you’re looking at the opioid crisis and drug addiction, behavioral issues, juvenile delinquency, suicide and mental health.” 

One of the issues is how to identify at-risk youth before they’re caught in a cycle of trafficking. Ways to do that would be to partner with schools and Social Services. There’s also no formal standards for resources victims could receive. There’s a lack of them too in the Commonwealth.

“It takes a great deal of training to properly provide services to these victims…As a result of these challenges in terms of the issues faced by victims, the lack of awareness of these issues and the limited resources that often leaves law enforcement when they come into contact with a victim with limited options than to arrest and detain that victim,” Drabert said.

The study came forward with about a dozen recommendations as well as two policy changes. One would require all law enforcement to receive special training on sex trafficking.

Another would clarify that “traffickers” are considered “caretaker” by the Department of Social Services. This would allow the DSS to take emergency custody of children who are victims as well as require DSS to conduct family assessments of juvenile sex trafficking victims’ residence. This would be separate from a criminal investigation.

In terms of getting victims help, the recommendations request that the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) use a portion of Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding for treatment and services.

A major change suggested is to create a sex trafficking state coordinator position, with Drabert says is used in other states. This person could work between departments to develop more education and awareness programs about this issue. The position would also be able to develop a course for people who are convicted of buying sex.

There are still a number of questions members of the commission have, specifically relating to data and information about what creates a trafficker. That wasn’t’ included in this study.

“What’s in the psyche of the trafficker? What created him? I don’t think it’s just a desire for money,” Sen. Janet Howell (D – District 32) said.

The group wants to continue the study for another year. They would hope to develop strategies to enhance data collection and case tracking across agencies as well as working with the Department of Education and school divisions to look at prevention strategies for youth.

In the long term, these recommendations could turn into legislation proposed during the 2019 session. Del. Krizek, who is also a member of the House Appropriations Committee, says they’re also looking at the costs of some of the initiatives. 

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