(This is the second of two articles on Virginia’s efforts against trafficking)
To combat human sex trafficking, a proactive and collaborative approach was needed in Virginia to address it. As I wrote last week, it was in 2019, that I took the lead in the creation of a Sex Trafficking Response Coordinator within the Department of Criminal Justice Services through the passage of my bill HB 2576. Since that time, especially thanks to the leadership of this coordinator and further updates to the code, Virginia has made significant strides in combating trafficking. For example, in September 2020, the coordinator applied for, and Virginia was one of only four states to be awarded, a competitive grant by the federal Office for Victims of Crime, which solicited proposals for services for minor victims of sex trafficking. Virginia received approximately $1.7 million over the period of 2021–2022 to support a wide range of services focused on minors who have been or are at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking in the western portion of the state.
In the 2021 Special Session, the passage of Del. Karrie Delaney’s HB 2133 created a process for survivors of sex trafficking to vacate and expunge some convictions of crimes they were forced to commit against their will. Clearing wrongful convictions and expunging criminal records allows survivors easier access to resources like trauma counseling, housing, education and employment. That same year, Del. Emily Brewer’s HB 2234 established an affirmative defense to prosecution for prostitution for victims of sex trafficking.
To address the decentralization of trafficking-related data collection, in 2022, the coordinator created a data platform called Virginia’s Analytics System for Trafficking (VAST). The VAST system allows the Commonwealth to capture the number of human trafficking cases that are being identified and then analyze that information at a deeper level to better understand the risk factors that were identified, the relationship between the perpetrator and victim, the demographics of the perpetrator and victim, the location(s) where the offenses occurred, and more.
In 2022, the Virginia State Police developed a Human Trafficking Unit. Prior to the creation of this unit, there was no official mechanism to report to law enforcement that would support a consistent statewide response. Historically, localities have reported directly to their local law enforcement agencies. Although this is a valid law enforcement reporting process, not all local law enforcement agencies have the knowledge or resources to effectively investigate trafficking cases in a victim-centered and trauma-informed manner. In some cases, investigations of valid cases have not been completed due to the lack of training and resources. The newly established Human Trafficking Unit initiated a public awareness campaign that consists of interstate billboards and a social media presence. This campaign has been designed to be strength-based to encourage community members to report potential human trafficking situations. A reporting tip line will eventually be established; however, at the current time, Virginia State Police is advertising #77 to be used for reporting.
In the recently released 2022 annual report by the coordinator, several recommendations were identified for future legislative sessions, including support for habitual runaways, a state-facilitated certification process for victim services providers, and additional training for school staff on human trafficking and the development of a process for students to request assistance from the school social worker or guidance counselor following lessons on human trafficking. I look forward to continuing these efforts as we do all we can here in Virginia to combat human trafficking and offer necessary support to survivors.