Richmond tackles human trafficking

Illustration by Allison Verjinski.
Illustration by Allison Verjinski.

Amid the flurry of legislation passed into law at the close of Virginia’s General Assembly session last week was a bill that will make it more difficult for people charged with human trafficking crimes to post bail.

House bill 1260 was sponsored by Democratic delegates, Dawn Adams (D – Richmond) and Mike Mullin (R- Newport News). When it goes into effect on July 1, the law will create a presumption against bail which requires the magistrate to initially deny bond, though defendants can appeal this decision. Presumption against bail is applied to offenses for which the defendant is unlikely to show up to trial, or for those deemed dangerous to the public.

ImPACT Virginia trains educators and medical personal to be aware of signs that someone is a trafficking victim. Fay Chelmow, the nonprofit’s director,  said the law could be beneficial in limiting the opportunity traffickers have to contact their victims.

“However, there still needs to be more advocating work around simply educating people that this is an issue in the first place because trafficking is very profitable — you can sell the same body over and over and over,” Chelmow said.

Last month, Chelmow was one of several speakers presenting at an independently organized TEDxRVA salon titled “Silenced No More.” The event was hosted at The Broad and addressed the questions of what human trafficking looks like, how common it is and what communities can do to stop it through an intimate series of conversations with experts and non-experts.

The conversation could not have happened at a better time.  

Virginia ranked 15th in the U.S. for the most reported cases of human trafficking, according to a 2017 report from the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The report also found Richmond is ranked ninth in the country and has the highest number of calls to the hotline per capita. Already valued at $150 billion , the world’s third largest criminal industry is on track to become the first within a few decades since trafficking includes both forced labor and sex work.

One of the event’s speakers, Elisabeth Corey, is a survivor of human trafficking. She advocates for dismantling the myths of what trafficking is supposed to look like and making recovery for survivors of all forms of trauma more accessible through work as trauma life coach with her non-profit, Beating Trauma.

Corey experienced what she called family controlled trafficking — she was sexually abused by her parents and relatives throughout her childhood as well as trafficked by them. Her father was raised in Richmond by two people who also participated in trafficking.

“When it happens in families it’s generational,” Corey said. “I was trafficked by my parents in a middle class home, white picket fence, 2.5 kids, the whole nine yards, right. We don’t see that as a place where trafficking happens — it’s important we start opening our eyes that it can happen anywhere.”

The panelists echoed Corey’s sentiment that trafficking victims don’t have a “typical” or “stereotypical” physical look. For this reason, it’s challenging to inform the public about the issue, as it occurs across all socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Modern slavery” doesn’t just consist of sex trafficking, said University of Richmond professor Monti Datta. Forced domestic servitude, like construction work and agriculture in the U.S., can also fall under this umbrella.

“Some victims may look destitute but often they are hidden in plain sight so if something doesn’t feel right to you just take a look, be the proverbial brother’s or sister’s keeper,” Datta said.

Though the House Bill that was recently passed aims to keep traffickers accountable, there is distrust of law enforcement that makes victims less likely to report trafficking crimes.

Tanya Gould-Street, a human trafficking survivor and creator of the non-profit Identifiable Me, which focuses on eradicating gender-based violence, said the social stigma of discussing sexual abuse and personal experiences can cause victims to feel ashamed and isolated.

I believe coming forward with what happened to me put this space between myself and the people in my community because it says ‘knowing my story brings you pain, and you may have to deal with yours,’” Gould-Street said. “With that comes a sense of isolation, rejection and shame.”

Due to overlying factors of abuse, trauma, fear and lack of access to resources, Corey said, trafficking victims, especially children and young adults, do not come forward right away.

“Are they gonna come to you the first time? No,” Corey said. “But if they have that place to go they may realize when they get to that point of despair or else, they remember they have a place to go and that’s what we need to start creating for these kids.”


Siona Peterous Staff Writer 

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