Featured,  Mind•Body•Soul

Human Trafficking in Southwest & Central Virginia 

Learn the signs & what one local group is doing to help save lives.

Written by Hayleigh Worgan

The Blue Campaign, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s ‘unified voice’ to combat human trafficking, defines the crime as “modern-day slavery [that] involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Contrary to the myth, human trafficking does not require children to be smuggled across a border or kidnapped while visiting another country. Instead, this is a crime happening while children are still in school. Perpetrators can include people that parents know and trust in their community. Sometimes, they even include family members. The crime can happen unbeknownst to parents while a child remains under their roof. As a community, we have a responsibility to report signs of trafficking when we see them. With human trafficking on the rise, it’s important to know the signs and indicators that can help identify traffickers, and lead to the rescue of their victims. Here are a few from the Blue Campaign:

First, be aware of changes to a child’s physical state. Increased anxiety, symptoms of depression, nervousness, and submissive behavior can be signs that something is wrong. Victims may also defer to another person to speak for them in certain situations. Traffickers look for victims who are vulnerable, and often create the illusion that they are the only ones on whom their victim can depend. Despite the abuse, a victim will often feel loyalty to their trafficker. They begin to shut out friends and family and opportunities for socialization outside of their time with a trafficker often cease to exist.

Additionally, if you spot a child that could be in a dangerous situation, it is important to notice if they have been harmed or deprived of food, water, sleep, medical care, or other life necessities. These indicators alone may not necessarily mean that someone is a victim of human trafficking. However, they are important warning signs to observe, document, and report if necessary. If you believe you have identified a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888. In fact, take a moment right now to save that number in your contacts. You never know when you may have the opportunity to save a life. 

You may be asking, “What happens next? Once you report a potential case, how do victims receive the help they need to regain their independence?”

The answer is complicated. Human trafficking is a much bigger problem locally than many may realize. As more perpetrators are exposed every year, the need for resources for victims increases. Law enforcement are being trained to understand that those being trafficked are victims, not perpetrators. However, there are some services that law enforcement cannot provide to victims as this can be misconstrued as coercion to testify against their trafficker. Locally, organizations like Street Ransom play a huge part in helping victims take back their lives.

Street Ransom is a ministry of Straight Street, an inner-city outreach that has been around since 1994. Straight Street works on a variety of programming such as mentoring and operating a drop-in center for youth who are at risk. They provide a safe place to go have fun that includes programs specific for different demographics, teen parents, and Christmas programs for children with incarcerated parents. Over the years, they have developed a relationship with law enforcement. In 2013, local law enforcement rescued a victim of sex trafficking in Roanoke. By that time, known cases of human trafficking had escalated significantly, and they began to realize there were few options for victims, specifically those under the age of 18. 

Law enforcement reached out to Straight Street and asked if they would be willing to form a program or shelter for young girls being trafficked in our area, and, as a result, Street Ransom began in 2014. 

Their mission is, first, to educate the community through awareness and prevention education.“We talk to law enforcement and different professionals who may come in contact with victims. Beyond that, we do presentations in the community to the general public that include answers to questions like, ‘Who are these victims?’ ‘How did people get involved in this?’ ‘What is Street Ransom doing, and what can I do to help?’ We explain warning signs and what to do if someone believes they have identified a victim of sex trafficking,” says Rebekah Broughton, Street Ransom’s Communication Coordinator.

Next, Street Ransom wants to meet victims and survivors where they are and provide for their basic needs. They can do things like donate clothing gift cards, provide legal aid, and support survivors through court proceedings. They also offer access to services like counseling and therapy. Their connections with professionals in the community allow Street Ransom to help survivors get whatever counseling they need specific to the trauma they have experienced. 

Finally, Street Ransom is developing a crisis shelter for juveniles who have been trafficked in Virginia. Right now, victims of trafficking under the age of 18 do not have shelter care services specifically designed to meet their needs.

“The crisis shelter is the first place girls will come once they are recovered, unless they are highly addicted to drugs and need to detox first. The survivors we serve can stay in our shelter for up to 90 days, and during that time, we will assess what the next step is for reuniting them with their families or placing them in foster care homes,” explains Broughton. Each foster care home, of course, would need to be a trained therapeutic foster family. An alternative option would be to transfer survivors to a long-term care facility. 

Broughton emphasizes that victims do not always fit the stereotypical mold we see in movies or on television. Sometimes, it is as simple as a teenager with a significantly older boyfriend. 

“[A trafficker] will see an opportunity to get in their lives and gain trust. He will isolate the girl from people who care about her and exploit that need. She doesn’t realize she’s being trafficked and manipulated. She’s roped into this life, isolated, and he will exploit her over and over again,” she explains.

“He will make her stay, by either physical violence or threatening her in some way so she will comply with him. At that point, she’s stuck in that cycle, and it’s hard for her to get out,” she adds.  “We are pushing to dispel the myth that these girls are prostitutes, or that they chose this life for themselves. The fact is that there is no such thing as a child prostitute. You are automatically considered a victim if you are under the age of 18.”

Street Ransom offers many resources to help educate parents, teachers, and community leaders how to recognize victims and prevent sex trafficking of children within our community. Learn more about Street Ransom by visiting 

www.streetransom.com. For more information on the Blue Campaign, visit www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign.

Hayleigh Worgan is an independent author, freelance writer, minimalist, and nomad. She enjoys adventuring with her husband and two dogs. Find out how you can support her work at  www.hayleighworgan.com.