It Happens Here: Human Trafficking in Richmond

Barbara Amaya was trafficked for the first time when she was 12 years old. From the moment of her capture, Amaya was groomed to be a sexual worker, working long nights and withstanding psychological and physical abuse from her trafficker. Amaya’s captor was not waiting in a dark alley to whisk her away, nor did she hold a gun to her head. Amaya was not enslaved in some far-off continent and then smuggled into New York City, where she was eventually forced to pick up most of her clients. Like many others who are trafficked, Amaya was captured with the false promise of a nurturing future as she ran away from a situation of domestic abuse in her suburban household in Fairfax, Virginia.

Today, Amaya is an award-winning author and human trafficking advocate. Her book, “Nobody’s Girl: A Memoir of Lost Innocence, Modern Day Slavery & Transformation,” has opened the door to new discussions and advocacy to end human trafficking. Her story and subsequent advocacy have become symbolic of the traction the anti-human trafficking movement has gained in recent years. A Fairfax, Virginia, native, Amaya has worked with several anti-trafficking organizations in the Virginia area, including the Richmond Justice Initiative (RJI), a local non-profit organization founded to prevent human trafficking in Richmond.

Human trafficking is the second-fastest growing criminal enterprise in the United States, valued at $32 billion annually and preceded only by the illegal drug industry, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, transfer, receipt, or attempt to do so of a person by means of threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, abuse of power or position of vulnerability, giving or receiving payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person.”

RJI identifies three main types of human trafficking: labor trafficking, sexual trafficking, and organ trafficking. RJI calculates that there are between 21 million and 46 million people trafficked worldwide. According to a Traffick911 report, 300,000 children are trafficked within the United States each year. An overwhelming majority of victims of sexual trafficking, the most common type of trafficking, are between 11 to 14 years old, Joell Maisano, University of Richmond alumna and project manager of RJI’s Prevention Project, said. Despite these statistics, Maisano said that nobody was immune to being trafficked.

“There is no stereotypical victim,” Amaya agreed. “It’s about vulnerabilities being preyed upon.”

As a young girl, Amaya ran away to Washington, D.C., desperate to escape the memories of the domestic abuse she suffered as a child. Alone in the nation’s capital, Amaya was the paragon of vulnerable, and it did not take long for someone to prey on the young 12-year-old girl.

A young, chic-looking woman reached out to her, offering to let Amaya stay at her boyfriend’s apartment. The woman’s boyfriend was a trafficker, as Amaya would later find out. At the time, the offer of shelter, food, and comfort was too good to turn away. The woman nourished her, making her feel welcome and, perhaps most crucially, gave her a sense of importance.

For Amaya, nurture came at a steep price.

“They ‘groomed’ me, taking me here and there and collecting money,” Amaya said.

After weeks of grooming a process in which Amaya’s pimps would prostitute her around Washington so that she could learn how to be a sexual worker Amaya was sold to another trafficker who took her to New York City.

“My day started in the night,” Amaya said. “I would put myself together and go out into the street and try to fulfill my quota for the trafficker. If I didn’t bring back the money, I would be beaten severely with whatever was around, even if I had been locked up in jail or beaten by a ‘client.’ I would have to stay outside until I got it.”

Although Amaya had the freedom to work on the streets by herself, running away was not an option. From the beginning, Amaya’s new trafficker made her psychologically and physically dependent on him, otherwise known as forming a trauma bond the preferred method of control for traffickers.

Traffickers form these bonds by first establishing a positive relationship, where they will listen to their victim’s problems and give them a sense of self-worth. Once the victim is off guard, traffickers establish their dominance in the relationship, usually through violent outbursts and pointed shows of power, Amaya said.

This bond not only prevents victims from running away from their trafficker but also makes them run back to their trafficker whenever they are given the chance to escape, Amaya said.

“There are no metal chains there was a mental chain keeping me bound,” Amaya said. “Victims don’t self-identify as victims.”

For the large part, victims come from vulnerable situations that prevent them from seeing the trafficker’s abuse. Like Amaya, victims are more likely to have previously suffered domestic abuse, or been exposed to other risk factors, such as drug addiction, broken families, low self-esteem or poverty, Maisano said. And, like Amaya, victims are lured in by the false promise of a better life.

“[A trafficker’s] job has been to scan people and check out signs of vulnerability,” Amaya said. “Traffickers figured out how to turn human beings into a commodity and prey on the most vulnerable.”

There are several fail-proof methods traffickers rely on to capture victims, Maisano said. The most common is the “lover boy” method, in which the trafficker enamors a victim and gains her trust. The victim will then usually go with the trafficker willingly. Other forms of trafficking include familial trafficking and gang control, in which the sense of loyalty to a greater group usually prevents the victim from speaking out.

But across the board, the trafficker’s most useful tools are highway intersections, because these make it easier to sell and trade their “goods”.

Interstates 64, 95 and 295 all intersect in Richmond, Virginia. Because of this, Richmond is one of the top 20 cities for human trafficking proliferation in the United States, according to the Polaris project. Nevertheless, both Richmond residents and the Virginia legislature failed to recognize the extent of the problem until recently.

“I always thought of human trafficking as a global, non-U.S. issue,” Abigael Muthoni, a University of Richmond sophomore and graduate of Hermitage High School in Henrico County, said. “I never really thought about it actually happening in my city.”

In 2009, Virginia was ranked as a “red state,” a ranking given by the Polaris project to judge individual state’s legislative effectiveness in defending and protecting victims and prosecuting traffickers, Maisano said. Red states, or Tier 4 states, are those that have failed to implement effective anti-trafficking laws. In contrast, green states, or Tier 1 states, have laws that specifically forbid human trafficking, punish traffickers and support survivors. Until 2015, Virginia was the only state without a standalone trafficking statute, thus making it difficult to prosecute traffickers on that specific charge.

From 2009 to 2015, the Richmond Justice Initiative helped pass 17 anti-human trafficking legislation in Virginia with the help of other advocacy groups, including Virginia’s first standalone sex trafficking statute. Thanks to these laws, Virginia is now a “green” state.

“The standalone sex trafficking statute was huge,” Maisano said. “Before that, there wasn’t a law in the books to say that trafficking was a crime. And our law enforcement knew it, they were seeing cases of it, but they had to rely on a patchwork of other old, outdated laws that didn’t have as harsh a penalty as a trafficking case would.”

Maisano said that some of these weaker charges could have included money laundering, which was usually classified as a Class 1 misdemeanor. Under the new statute, human traffickers can be charged with up to a Class 3 felony, a massive improvement to effectively prosecuting traffickers.

In recent years, the Richmond Justice Initiative has changed its focus from direct advocacy to education and prevention. The organization received a $25,000 grant from AT&T in 2012 to develop its trademark trafficking prevention course, The Prevention Project. The Prevention Project is a six-course education program designed to teach middle- and high-school students the methods used by traffickers and empower them to search for solutions.

Since the program’s inception in 2012, 55 schools across the United States have implemented it, teaching more than 7,500 youth about human trafficking.

“I think our biggest victory is how many students we’ve reached,” said Maisano. “Human trafficking is a very preventable crime.”

The program is divided into six 45-minute sessions. These sessions begin with defining human trafficking and eliminating common misconceptions, and delving deeper into the reality of trafficking within the U.S. The curriculum then shifts toward deglamorizing pimp culture, and analyzing the supply-demand chain that creates a niche for trafficking in the first place. The final sessions focus on student empowerment by learning about the importance of self-esteem and advocacy in preventing trafficking.

“I learned about how widespread it was,” said Muthoni, whose high school class was the second generation of students who took the program. “I learned more that it was happening, and how it happens, and how many ways people can be trafficked. I learned a lot more about the details.”

The nature of the program makes it difficult to determine its success. Currently, RJI uses a pre-test and post-test method to determine how much students have learned throughout the course. Maisano said that the responses they have gotten thus far demonstrated the program has been effective, and that there have been two cases of trafficking reported through the program.

“Student’s responses are unbelievable,” Victoria Noles, a University of Richmond student who interned at RJI last summer, said. “All of them want to get further involved and are so passionate about stopping human trafficking and wanting to do what they can.”

RJI has plans to keep expanding the project as much as possible, including implementing it in more schools in states across the nation. So far, the organization has implemented programs in six states, including Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, Arizona and California.

Another long-term expansion for the Prevention Project is to translate the curriculum into Spanish. Maisano said that immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, were especially at risk of being trafficked, because traffickers have much more leverage over them.

“I think it would be important to have this project in more areas and more schools, because a lot of people need to hear more about these issues and learn about them,” Muthoni said.

Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done in the field of prevention education. Maisano said that coordinating volunteers and raising funds was one of the most difficult aspects of working in human trafficking advocacy.

“It is discouraging to see people who respond in such a heartfelt way, and then to not hear from them afterward,” she said. “It’s just unfortunate that there’s always a need for fundraising. The fact that there’s still a need to raise funds means there’s not enough people who understand the weight of what’s happening.”

Part of the problem is getting people to engage with the issue on a personal level.

“I want my heart to break more about the issue and for it to feel more real to me, but it’s so far away and I feel so removed from it,” Noles said.

On average, women and children who are trafficked are expected to live only eight years more after they are first trafficked, according to a study done by S.E. Dill in the Criminal Justice Journal.

Amaya did not escape her trafficker until she was 17 years old.





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