CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Experts call human trafficking a quiet crisis, and say it’s happening in central Virginia and across the Shenandoah Valley. Human trafficking is when someone is forced or coerced into sex work. “Child trafficking is real. It exists in our community,” Foothills Child Advocacy Center Director Cynthia Hurst said.
Human trafficking impacts people of all ages, including children.
Child advocacy groups, law enforcement, and physicians are working together to help victims. The Foothills Child Advocacy Center in Charlottesville is working with two separate child trafficking cases right now. “What we’re dealing with is sexual exploitation, but there can also be labor, using children for other reasons. It could be someone who looks just fine,” Hurst said.
Hurst says most of this abuse is happening in the home. “It’s usually someone you know,” she said. “Out of 310 children, zero experienced abuse at the hands of a stranger last year.” Children brought into Foothills by law enforcement are interviewed and examined.
“What we’ve seen is it’s usually family members who appear from the outside to be taking good care of their kids, but then something comes out. That child talks to a friend or someone else, and then they end up at Foothills where we interview them and find out what’s been happening, and then we start to learn more and more about what’s going on, and that there are more than one child involved,” Hurst said.
But this work can’t be done alone. A network of organizations are working to combat this epidemic. Detective Michael Schneider with the Albemarle County Police Department is part of that fight. “People are not familiar with human trafficking. Nobody thinks about trafficking as something that happens in their community,” Schneider said. The detective says there are signs that you can look out for to help a child in need: “Look for children that may not have access to medical care or malnourished, lack of access to resources that they would need to survive, or they just stop going to school,” Schneider said.
Hurst says sometimes subtle differences in a child can be a sign that something is wrong: “Are they suddenly hanging out with a different group of kids? Do they have new tattoos? All of these are signs that something is amiss and that you might want to investigate a little further,” she said. Experts say Charlottesville’s close proximity to Richmond and the Virginia Beach area makes this is a child-trafficking hotspot. “In our clinic we tend to see kind of 12 and 13 year old’s,” UVA Health Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Dr. Serwa Ertl said.
Ertl meets with children in her clinic who are being trafficked. “You can see sex trafficking for children at a younger age, it can be as young as 8 or 7,” Ertl said. Now that children will be returning to the classroom after spending a year at home, Hurst is anticipating a new wave of kids in need of help. “We’re expecting, as other child advocacy centers around Virginia and the country, that we’re going to see an uptick in the cases coming in because the mandated reporters will be seeing them in person again,” Hurst said.
If you think a child is in danger of human trafficking, you should call Crime Stoppers at (434) 977-4000. If you need help from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, you should call (888) 373-7888 or text help to BeFree (233733).