Hidden in Plain Sight: The Reality of Human Trafficking

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Reality of Human Trafficking

Most people think of human trafficking as a faraway problem, a misery confined to big cities or lonely deserts where organized networks of criminals use violence and drugs to collect souls. The residents of quiet communities like Crozet might believe the buying and selling of persons can be happening only somewhere else, not here, but experts say it happens everywhere because it’s carefully hidden, often by the victims themselves.

“I’ve learned that people tend to believe myths about human trafficking, and so they may miss it when it’s happening in front of them,” said Annette Cox, long-time Crozet resident and manager of the Victim Witness Assistance Program at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia. “That’s a real loss, because our experience shows that a well-informed public is one of the strongest weapons in combating crime.”

Both the nature and methods of human trafficking are misunderstood, said Cox. “So often people think it begins with a kidnapping by a stranger, but that’s rarely the case,” she said. “It is a hateful crime, but it’s not a hate crime. It’s a crime of commerce, about money and coercion. It’s about using other people in a way that is profitable, without any regard for them as human beings.”

Cox described an insidious long game in which a trafficker exploits a vulnerability and worms his way into a victim’s life. “Think of something as simple as a new student at a high school,” she said. “She’s uncomfortable and wants to fit in, and a cute older boy showers her with attention and the sense of belonging that she needs. He solves all her new school problems, but his plan is to exploit her, and without realizing it she becomes ensnared in a filmed sex scheme. He threatens to expose her to her classmates and family if she doesn’t comply with his demands.” Cox said that victims are often desperate to hide their situation from family and friends for fear of retribution and humiliation, and so they comply.

The coercion aspect of these crimes counters the myth that trafficking victims would surely tell someone what was happening if given the opportunity. “A coercive scheme can be more powerful than a gun to your head, because it’s always there,” said Cox. “With an effective scheme in place, a trafficker can get you to do what they want you to do, even when they’re not there, even when they’re in jail, even when you’re in jail,” said Cox. “That’s why they can give you a cell phone and know you won’t use it to call the police.”

Low Road

Human trafficking is defined as compelling someone to work, or to engage in a commercial sex act, via threats of force, fraud, or coercion. (For minors, a charge of sex trafficking does not require threats.) In Virginia, sex trafficking cases outnumber labor trafficking by about 3 to 1 in terms of calls to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. Over the last few years, several traffickers have been convicted for operating prostitution rings using trafficked women in Charlottesville, some out of ordinary-looking apartment complexes in town.

While labor trafficking is more common in the southern and southwest U.S., undocumented immigrants and refugees are often exploited in rural and agricultural areas for farming and harvest labor. “Being an undocumented immigrant can be a vulnerability,” said Cox. “Traffickers prey on undocumented workers, whose illegal work status, language barriers, and fear of the police make them a perfect target. Imagine being forced to sleep in the basement of a restaurant where you work every single day with little to no pay. You don’t know the language or where exactly you are, or how to tell anybody where you are.”

The magnitude of trafficking is hard to quantify as the crime is thought to be vastly underreported. Even so, the National Hotline, which receives tips on suspected cases and helps victims and survivors find local services, had over 50,000 contacts nationwide in 2020, with more than 10,000 cases reported. 120 of those cases involved victims in Virginia, putting it in the top half of states in number of cases. Major highways that crisscross Virginia like I-81, I-64, and I-95 help traffickers move victims from place to place.

“The better the road system, the more likely the drug trafficking, and the more likely the human trafficking,” said Cox. Areas of highest incidence in Virginia are in the north, central, and southeast regions, and the east coast from Florida to New York/New Jersey is a long band of high activity. 

“For criminals, in some ways trafficking can be less risky than other types of [for-profit] crime,” said Cox. “If you get stopped by the police with drugs you intend to sell in the car, chances are good you’re going to prison; if there’s a person you intend to sell in the car, you may not. What traffickers do is they reduce people—not just women, because it can be boys, men, women, girls—they reduce that person to a commodity. And it’s a commodity they can sell over and over and over again.”

At Risk

Several conditions raise the likelihood that a person is susceptible to being trafficked: gang involvement, a history of child abuse or neglect, poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, and being a runaway, in foster care, or chronically truant. In these cases, a trafficker can lure someone in by providing basic needs—food, shelter, drugs, clothing, money. But Cox named other risk factors that are more subtle, and often less noticed.

“People who are particularly susceptible to peer pressure, who have bonding issues, who didn’t have an early attachment to a parent or caregiver, who suffer from detachment, isolation, loneliness, negative self-esteem,” said Cox. “All of these are people who have basic needs that are not being met as well.” These groups are less apt to be seen as potential human trafficking victims by others around them. Cox noted that people with disabilities or mental health challenges can be more easily manipulated, and those who are struggling with gender identity can be vulnerable if they’ve lost the support of family and friends. 

Experts say that a human trafficking scheme can be detected by anyone who is observant and takes note of unusual behavior, such as a situation in which an adult never seems to be allowed out of their house alone, a teen has multiple bruises in various stages of healing, or a child is suddenly missing a lot of school. 

Dr. Jennifer Andrews, UVA Health System pediatrician. Submitted photo.

“Is a young person receiving a bunch of extra gifts from an adult in their life, is someone paying for them to have their hair and nails done, or buying them a cell phone?” said Jennifer Andrews, a child abuse pediatrician in the UVA Health System. “These sorts of things could have a perfectly legitimate reason or answer, but they should at least give you pause.”

Andrews also works with patients at Charlottesville’s Foothills Child Advocacy Center, conducting evaluations and forensic exams of child abuse victims who are referred to the center by local agencies. The center’s director, Cynthia Hurst, said that while human trafficking can be national news, as in the recent case in Texas where over 50 people died in a tractor trailer while being smuggled across the southern border, the day to day horror of trafficking is not something most people think about.

“There are cases like a mother who’s a drug addict and allows the drug dealers to go into her daughter’s bedroom and exchange for drugs,” said Hurst, “or the neighbor or relative who is extra interested in your kids, when actually he is handing them off to his friends for money. These kinds of cases are a lot more prevalent in terms of human trafficking than the big splash stories that are receiving news coverage and the attention of legislation.”

Stories about human trafficking rarely emphasize the other party in these transactions—the buyer—without whom the enterprise wouldn’t exist. “In order to sell something, you have to have a buyer,” said Cox. “As a community, we should ask ourselves the hard question…who are these buyers?” The plight of labor-trafficked people employed in hotels and restaurants and as housekeepers and gardeners is often invisible to those who use their services.

On Task

Foothills is part of a nationwide network that provides a multitude of services for abused and trafficked children. “We work closely with Child Protective Services and local law enforcement—those are the two that refer children to us who they suspect have experienced abuse,” said Hurst. “We do forensic interviews, and we connect families to local services. We also have a mental health program so children can receive therapeutic services through us.”

Andrews said that trafficking is not limited to cities or areas near interstate highways. “In rural areas, it’s more of the isolation piece,” she said. “It’s kids who are more isolated, more vulnerable, who maybe are sitting at home on their computers and have mental health issues but a lack of resources to be able to combat those problems because of where they live.” During pandemic-related lockdowns, online recruitment of victims increased by 22%, particularly on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, according to the nonprofit Polaris Project.

Cynthia Hurst, Executive Director of Foothills Child Advocacy Center. Photo: Jen Ferrielo.

While Andrews sometimes notices signs of abuse in children and teens who are afraid to speak up about what’s happening, she also sees the opposite problem. “Sadly, the other thing that we see is that often our teenage survivors or victims are not believed,” she said. “This can be because of other mental health problems they have or other social things going on with them, so that when they do disclose, people are less apt to believe them.”

Detective Michael Schneider works for the Albemarle County Police Department in the Special Victims Unit on cases that involve children. Schneider and other police investigators refer trafficking and abuse victims under the age of 18 who are discovered during police investigations to Foothills. 

“Foothills sends us to ‘ChildFirst’ training, which trains us in how to talk to children about abuse,” said Schneider. “If an adult comes forward and wants to talk about something that’s happening to them—they’ve been forced into prostitution or labor—we first get them to a hospital to make sure they’re okay. Once they’re safe, we let Dr. Andrews and her forensic team know a survivor is there, and we try to make them as comfortable as possible.”

Schneider, Andrews, Hurst, and Cox are all members of a local human trafficking task force that was founded in 2019 at UVA with the help of Dr. Serwa Ertl, an assistant professor of pediatrics in UVA’s Teen and Young Adult Health Center. The task force is multidisciplinary and includes medical doctors, counselors and staff from local service agencies, and members of the Albemarle and Charlottesville police departments and the regional jail.

“We meet once a month to go over training, and people will speak about what they do,” said Schneider. “It has really brought us all together and given us a lot of contacts in the community. In a trafficking type case—whether it’s labor or sex trafficking—there are a lot of moving parts and a lot of people involved, and now there’s much more information-sharing and we all know what to do if something happens.” 

Detective Michael Schneider of the Albemarle County Police Department (right), receiving an award for Detective of the Year in 2022. Submitted photo.

Task force members are also working to expand ways to uncover trafficking by focusing on the types of professionals that regularly come into contact with children and teens, such as teachers and doctors. Virginia authorizes certain persons to be “mandated reporters,” who must report to local authorities their suspicions (while working in their professional capacity) that a child is being abused or neglected. These include teachers, coaches, religious leaders, medical and mental health professionals, and law enforcement.

“One thing we’re doing [at UVA] is improving the education for our medical students, our residents, and even our attending physicians on what are some of the signs of trafficking,” said Andrews. “Research data shows that a large number of human trafficking survivors have been seen by a medical professional of some sort within the last year or so, but it wasn’t detected.” A team of three doctors including Andrews and Ertl has developed an elective course for medical students that they’ll teach this fall on the signs of human trafficking to watch for in patients, and how to ask questions in a trauma-informed manner. 

Dr. Serwa Ertl, UVA Health System pediatrician. Submitted photo.

“A young person may have certain risk factors and then later disclose things that make us concerned about trafficking, but it’s also important to note that disclosure isn’t necessary,” said Ertl. “It’s not our job at all to get an individual to disclose anything that they don’t feel comfortable disclosing.” To approach the topic gently, Ertl may give some reading material that contains the National Hotline number to a patient. “I will say, ‘if you have a friend who is perhaps concerned about this, here is a great thing to give them.’”

“One of our task force members is conducting research on education for school nurses in terms of what human trafficking looks like,” said Ertl, “so that they have that awareness because they have frequent contact with students.” She said that there is much to be learned from trafficking survivors as well. “[Survivors] are so resilient and have so many different experiences that they bring back to the community in terms of what is helpful and what’s not for people in trafficking situations.”

Taking Care

In June, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin announced the formation of a new task force called the Commission to Prevent Human Trafficking and Support Survivors. The commission is comprised of 18 members from law enforcement and support service agencies around the state who will serve as an advisory council to the Governor and make recommendations to combat human trafficking in Virginia. Youngkin also signed seven pieces of legislation aimed at helping trafficking victims, including increasing training in critical venues such as the hotel industry and law enforcement, giving victims in-state tuition at universities, and adding optional instruction on child trafficking to high school family life curricula.

At the local level, Schneider points to the need for increased citizen awareness. “Albemarle county is a great place, and I love where I live in Crozet, but a lot of the time, trafficking is happening and we just don’t know about it,” he said. “The one thing I’d stress is, the community’s role is to help us identify and report this stuff. If you suspect [trafficking], you don’t have to get involved, you can report anonymously if you want. Take care of your community—that’s the biggest part of it.” 

Polaris Project Data on Human Trafficking 

Polaris is a nonprofit non-governmental organization that works to combat and prevent sex and labor trafficking in North America. The  Polaris Project runs the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. Some statistics from their U.S. data for 2020:

  • Over 10,000 situations of trafficking were identified, involving almost 17,000 victims. Sex trafficking victims outnumbered labor trafficking victims 3 to 1.
  • During the 2020 lockdowns, as the proportion of victims from common recruitment sites such as strip clubs (-46%), foster homes (-70%) and schools (-38%) went down drastically, the internet was reported as the top recruitment location for all forms of trafficking.
  • There was a 125% increase in reports of recruitment on Facebook over the previous year and a 95% increase on Instagram.
  • Among all forms of trafficking where recruitment relationships were known, the proportion of victims recruited by a family member or caregiver increased from 21% to 31%.
  • The proportion of victims recruited by intimate partners (e.g., boyfriends) increased by 21%.
  • In labor trafficking situations, 69% of victims were recruited by a potential or current employer.
  • The top risk factors/ vulnerabilities remained  consistent with past years, and included substance abuse and runaway/homeless youth, recent migration/ relocation, and economic hardship.

Indicators of Human Trafficking

Here are some common indicators to help recognize human trafficking, provided by the Blue Campaign at the Department of Homeland Security:

  • Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
  • Has a child stopped attending school?
  • Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?
  • Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?
  • Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
  • Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
  • Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
  • Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?
  • Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
  • Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
  • Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
  • Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
  • Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?
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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.


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