PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and law enforcement agencies want to remind residents about the crime they say is hidden in plain sight.
Last year, the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force was assembled to help victims of human trafficking and put their abusers behind bars.
The move came after Virginia was recorded as having the 15th highest number of human trafficking cases among states nationwide in 2016, according to the office of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
The team is led by the ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, Herring’s office, and the Samaritan House, a local non-profit.
Michael Lamonea, who is the assistant special agent in charge with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in Norfolk, says the community can help stop human trafficking but many people don’t know what to look for.
“People don’t understand it’s actually in their community. If it’s not towards the forefront of their mind, they may not be looking for it or noticing those indicators when they see it,” he said.
Lamonea says human trafficking can take two forms, sex or labor trafficking, and that vulnerable populations are usually victims.
He says abusers may exploit victims through romance, drug use, even their immigration status to make them do work.
Lamonea says signs include:
- seeing individuals disconnected from family, friends, community organizations or houses of worship.
- children who have stopped attending school
- sudden and dramatic changes in behavior
- juveniles engaged in commercial sex acts
- someone disoriented or confused
- unexplained injuries
- person seems fearful, timid or submissive
- person is in the company of someone who they defer to
- person appears to be coached what to say
- lacks personal possessions and lives in unsuitable living conditions,
- person lacks freedom of movement.
Lamonea says it’s important for victims to speak up since many can experience Stockholm Syndrome with their abusers.
He urges victims to reach out so the task force can provide resources to get them the help they need.
“There’s a lot we can do. We just need them to come forward. We need to see the victims coming forward so we can get them the help they need in the capacity we can provide,” he said.
That’s where the task force’s non-profit partners, like the Samaritan House, step in to help.
We sat down with one human trafficking victim, who’s now using programs provide to get back on her feet.
“I remember my many days sitting in the hotel thinking, there’s got to be something better than this,” she said.
The trafficking victim spoke with 10 On Your Side anonymously because of safety concerns.
She says she wasn’t prostituting long, and became ensnared in the life because she loved the man she was working for.
She says she never knew what she was doing was considered human trafficking.
“When we think of human trafficking, a lot of people in their mind, they think it’s what they see on TV with children being moved across borders and being sold for sex slaves and it’s not,” she said.
The victim says she learned about the task force and its resources once she landed in jail.
Her life’s been ever changed.
“We find in the life that there aren’t a lot of people that care. From our clients to other girls to the pimps, nobody cares. But here, it’s overwhelming to see how much they care from the time they meet you to down the road, where you’re not even in the program,” she said.
And for those at home, who feel trapped, scared, and don’t know how to get out of the life, the victim says you just have to reach out to the task force or Samaritan House to get away from the people who are using you.
“There’s always hope. There’s always hope for change,” she said.
The task force relies on tips to eradicate human trafficking in our region.
If you notice anything unusual or suspicious in your neighborhood or if you’re a victim of human trafficking, you’re asked to call the hotline at 1-866-DHS-2ICE (1-866-347-2423).