Commentary: Human trafficking a growing problem in region

Barbara Comstock

Barbara Comstock

It is a crime that often happens in the shadows of our community. Human trafficking has taken a foothold in Northern Virginia, and all parents and teachers need to be aware of this heinous crime. Victims have been lured by phrases such as “you’re pretty” and “you can make some money” on social media. What is so grotesque about this crime is the perpetrators target the young and vulnerable.

One of the likely scenarios that can happen in Northern Virginia is that of a young girl, who has responded to an enticing message on Facebook. She is then courted and groomed by an older man she thought of as her boyfriend — in reality the boyfriend is a pimp. The “boyfriend” picks her up after school every afternoon; she is dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt and a ponytail to be sent out to solicit sex multiple times in one night. The young girl finally reaches out for help through a school guidance counselor, a trusted friend or church leader and is pulled out of this dark world by police who are fortunately learning more about this crime every day. She could have been recruited from an average suburban neighborhood and her parents had no idea what was going on or certainly didn’t imagine such a dark world.

A scenario like this can happen in our backyard. Northern Virginia has a growing human trafficking problem — a problem we are seeing expand throughout the country. The Fairfax County Police Department recently established the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force to crack down on this scourge. In the past 12 months alone, the Task Force has had 156 leads, 109 victim recoveries, 267 victims identified and 73 suspects. One hundred and two of the 109 victims recovered are U.S. citizens.

Our local police and community leaders are rising to this challenge to combat this terrible crime in Virginia and we have a great partnership to continue this work. Four years ago, Virginia was at the bottom of the Polaris Project’s Anti-Human Trafficking State Rankings. Virginia is now ranked in the top category [Tier 1]  in the fight against human trafficking thanks in large part to the efforts of our law enforcement, faith-based organizations, teachers, victim service centers and local and state elected officials. As a state delegate over the past five years, I worked with a bipartisan coalition to pass anti-human trafficking laws, including a bill I sponsored to crack down on traffickers connected with gangs. As a member of Congress, I will now continue to make fighting this issue a priority.

During my first month in office, I signed on as a co-sponsor to eight pieces of human trafficking legislation introduced by both Republicans and Democrats and became a member of the Congressional Human Trafficking caucus. All eight bills have now passed the House and they offer a mix of legislative solutions to combat human trafficking, from encouraging states to establish safe harbor laws to making sure the U.S. and foreign countries are communicating about human trafficking.

One such bill was H.R. 350, The Human Trafficking Prevention, Intervention, and Recovery Act of 2015 introduced by Congresswoman Kristi Noem (R-SD).

The bill launches a review to look into how federal and state agencies are combating human trafficking, and makes sure all federal efforts and resources are targeted to the right areas, among other improvements. Another piece of legislation authored by Congressman Sean Maloney, D-New York, H.R. 357, The Human Trafficking Prevention Act, establishes new minimum training procedures for foreign-service personnel so they can spot potential victims before they come into the United States.

Our community and nationwide efforts can and will have a real impact on the health and safety of our children and neighbors. We must continue to work together with law enforcement, faith-based organizations, teachers, victim service centers and local business leaders throughout Northern Virginia to raise awareness of and stop this heinous crime.

Barbara Comstock is the U.S. representative to Congress from Virginia’s 10th District.

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