Human Trafficking: No Stranger to Virginia

Terrible trade

September 1, 2010 12:35 am

HUMAN TRAFFICKING now bears a familiar face: Virginia’s. The first step in fighting the scourge is raising awareness of it.

In Northern Virginia, victims of trafficking may look like Asian girls in massage parlors or Russian women in strip clubs. But no subculture is immune: Eighteen months ago, a Newport News man, Marvin Madkins, was convicted in Florida of transporting two Virginia teenagers to the Sunshine State for prostitution. That’s human trafficking.

The victims involved in what some call modern-day slavery are sometimes runaways, sometimes cast-offs, and always desperate people. They may be tricked into believing they are going to work as domestics or restaurant servers. Coerced into prostitution or domestic servitude, they end up abused, their self-images shattered, their futures impaired.

The Polaris Project is a nonprofit organization founded by two Brown University students dedicated to fighting all forms of human trafficking. Recently, Polaris named Virginia one of its “dirty dozen”–states that are falling behind in the fight.

“Human traffickers constantly look for places where they can make high profits and where they feel like there is little chance of getting caught,” Bradley Myles, Polaris Project CEO and executive director, said in a press release. “States that fail to provide critical deterrents–strong penalties, asset forfeiture laws, or trained law enforcement–are at heightened risk.”

Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill that improves the state’s anti-trafficking stance by expanding the definition of “abduction” to include abduction for the purpose of subjecting the person to forced labor and/or services. This is a good step forward, but more should be done.

Part of the problem is getting officials’ attention. Gangs and drugs have traditionally been the focus of local law enforcement; prostitution is often met with a shrug.

But all too often, prostitutes are underage victims of coercion. In July, 2007, for example, a 15-year-old Virginia girl was taken from her group home and advertised for sex on Craigslist. She was rescued through an innovative computer program developed by an FBI agent based in Manassas.

It’s hard to establish how many cases of trafficking occur in Virginia each year. A spokesman for the FBI office in Richmond could say only that it “happens quite often.” Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Fairfax, says its time to toughen up the state’s laws and get law enforcement on board. “Behind the curve” is not where we want to be on human trafficking.


The Craigslist connection mentioned above illustrates the reason why Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli recently signed a letter (along with the attorneys general of 16 other states) asking Craigslist to discontinue its adult services listings category which, he said, “has become a forum for inviting illegal–and potentially very dangerous–activity throughout Virginia.”

The Internet site asserts it checks ads, but Mr. Cuccinelli says “whatever monitoring Craigslist may be doing of posts is not sufficient.”