FAIRFAX, Va. – “During my tenure as a detective working human trafficking we’ve identified a victim from at least every high school and several middle schools the Northern Virginia area,” explained Detective Woolf who has been working to combat human trafficking and gang activity in the region for years.
Experts say average age of entry for a human trafficking victim in Northern Virginia is 15, however Det. Woolf has worked with victims as young as 9.
“Most [trafficking victims] go to school everyday and sleep in their own beds. The trafficking occurs when they get out of school until maybe 8 or 9 at night and often times parents think the teen is simply out with their friends, boyfriend, someone and doesn’t realize that their child is actually being exploited,” said Woolf.
Woolf said the large number of the traffickers he’s interviewed say they prefer to target upper and middle class teens in Fairfax County because they are easier to manipulate. Their lack of street experience makes them “more vulnerable.”
“These gang members, these individuals can coerce these individuals into doing whatever they want — it’s all based on relationships,” explained Deepa Patel, Executive Director of Trauma and Hope in Springfield. Patel works with sex trafficking victims, gang members and sex offenders.
Woolf says gangs have been increasingly shifting away from drugs, towards human trafficking — as the crime is lower risk and yields higher revenue.
“You really can’t hide that gun or that kilo of that cocaine whereas that amount of grooming coercion that goes into that victim is horrific,” explained Patel.
Drugs and weapons are one time transactions, human beings however can be sold over and over again.
Experts stress that instantly pointing fingers towards infamous gangs such as MS-13 and the Crips can be dangerous. Explaining that a substantial amount of trafficking occurring in Northern Virginia is being carried out by small local gangs, “the kind you can’t google.” Highlighting specific gangs with “name recognition” is inaccurate — allowing local gangs to traffic under the radar and in terms of ego, encouraging others to compete for street credit. Northern Virginia has over 200 gangs.
“The Department of Justice estimates that by 2020 trafficking will surpass not only the drug trade but arms sales,” explained Jodi O’Hern a Volunteer with “Just Ask Prevention.”
A new law will take effect on July 1st requiring the Virginia Board of Education to develop guidelines to train school staff members on how to to prevent child trafficking.
O’Hern and Woolf have both worked in schools for years. As well as churches and other community outlets through the non-profit “Just Ask Prevention.” The organization’s mission is to educate the public about human-trafficking.
Woolf said the initiative earned its name after an investigation he worked several years ago when a 17 year-old trafficking victim was recovered from a Northern Virginia hotel. The girl had been trafficked for 3 years, despite having “parents, counselors, the juvenile justice system” in her life. “During those three years of being exploited nobody ever asked, she said if ‘somebody would have just asked her what was going on, asked her why she was behaving the way she was behaving that she would have loved to have told them that she wanted an out.’”
Experts say one of the most important things you can do is educate yourself on the issue of human trafficking and if something doesn’t seem right, “just ask.”
“85% of persons engaged in commercial sex in the United States are actually human trafficking victims, meaning they’re controlled by a trafficker,” explained Woolf – who says the statistic dispels the myth that “it is often consensual.