When law enforcement officials announced the launch of a new task force to combat human trafficking in the western part of the state late last year, they called for broad action to stop a growing problem.
“Human trafficking is an emerging issue in the Western District of Virginia, one that must be met with a comprehensive approach,” said Charlottesville-based U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy in his statement announcing the task force.
Now a new nonprofit is aiming to become a key part of that approach by opening the state’s first shelter for trafficked victims in Charlottesville. Board members from the faith-based group The Arbor laid out their mission in a workshop sponsored by advocacy group Creciendo Juntos at the Albemarle County Office Building last week.
The group isn’t alone in its efforts to tackle modern slavery in the state, said board president Laurie Seaman, “but it would be the first to operate in a town this small,” she said.
Statistics on human trafficking in the U.S., including sex trafficking, are hard to come by. Seaman, a UVA graduate who works for Charlottesville’s Sexual Assault Resource Agency, learned as much while working for the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that runs the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline.
From 2007 through 2012, the NHTRC hotline took 9,300 calls about potential trafficking cases, and 64 percent of them involved allegations of forced sex. Virginia had the seventh-highest number of suspected cases of trafficking.
Those stats got the attention of a prayer group at Charlottesville’s All Souls Church, whose members wanted to do something to tackle the issue of trafficking in their state. The group that would become The Arbor contacted Seaman looking for guidance and know-how in setting up a shelter to aid victims, and right away, she joined the cause.
The first step, she said, was research. For its needs assessment, the group interviewed hospitals, police departments, and service organizations across Virginia, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. and found 75 reported cases of trafficking victims, 25 of them in the Commonwealth.
“The numbers are actually way higher, because these are just the found cases,” she said. It’s likely much of Virginia’s trafficking happens outside of the urban rings they focused on, too.
Albemarle County Police Lieutenant Todd Hopwood said he couldn’t offer specific local statistics, but said police know it’s an issue.
“There is anecdotal evidence of human trafficking in the migrant labor camps where prostitution is happening,” said Hopwood, but it’s difficult to make inroads in those cases, because many undocumented people won’t talk to the authorities for fear of being deported.
The Arbor’s needs assessment also pointed to a lack of coordination in addressing trafficking. The group learned of 30 more cases from the Department of Homeland Security, but there was no overlap with The Arbor’s list. A study by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services released in September 2012 offered more indications of underreporting.
After surveying staff at parole agencies, jails, and domestic violence and sexual assault services centers, DCJS found that none had formal procedures for serving trafficking victims, and only 24 percent collected data on the cases they did see. The top-listed service the report said was needed in the state: shelters.
And that’s what The Arbor plans to offer. The group is looking to transform a home in the city to a live-in shelter for victims from across western Virginia and beyond in early 2015. Exactly where, Seaman won’t say, for privacy reasons, but “we have a few neighborhoods we’re looking at,” she said.
The shelter will have five to 10 beds, and the client focus will be narrow for now: only foreign-born adult female victims of sex trafficking. They expect most women to stay for about a year, during which time they’d have access to counseling, medical care, legal help, and language and job training.
“At this point, we’re meeting the needs we can meet right now,” Seaman said. “It’s not going to be enough, and I think all of us are frustrated about that.”
But they’re hopeful, too.
Tony Lin, another Arbor board member, said the phenomenon of people buying and selling other people happens in marginalized communities, among groups who are shoved out of the social and economic framework most citizens operate in. By acknowledging that the problem exists, by pointing it out, by taking care of victims, he and the other members of The Arbor hope to make a difference. They still have a lot of fundraising to go, but they’re more than halfway to what they need to start operations, he said.
“We’re not dreaming anymore,” said Lin. “This is happening.”