Residential programs for victims of sex trafficking are sorely lacking in Virginia, according to a national survey and local officials.
A national survey of residential programs for victims of sex trafficking was recently undertaken by the Criminal Justice Information Authority of Illinois. Results of the national report, published in October, show that out of the 682 residential beds dedicated to victims of sex trafficking in 33 residential programs nationwide, only six of those beds are available in Washington, D.C., and none are in Virginia.
According to the authority, domestic sex trafficking is a violation of human rights and considered to be a form of modern day slavery. It is recognized as a growing issue in the U.S.; however, the full extent of trafficking remains unknown. Traffickers and victims often avoid detection since much of the criminal activity is hidden and victims rarely seek help or report their situation to police.
What constitutes trafficking is also often misunderstood.
Trafficking victims do not have to be foreign-born or transported across borders; in fact, many are born in the U.S. and are never moved from their recruitment city. Victims of trafficking often suffer from serious physical and psychological problems.
“Sex trafficking victims have very specific physical and psychological needs,” said Chris Davies, director of counseling services for the Fairfax County Department of Family Services’ Office for Women & Domestic and Sexual Violence Services. “Many times they do not see themselves as victims because the level of their manipulation is so high.” According to Davies, historically there have always been a limited number of shelters and services available for these victims, and even fewer with the capacity to appropriately treat the severity of sex trafficking victims’ problems.
“There is a shortage of shelter space throughout the U.S. and especially in Virginia. What often happens is that sex trafficking victims are sent to domestic abuse shelters, but the needs of domestic violence survivors are very different than those of sex trafficking victims, and they are not always compatible.”
In addition, shelter space strictly for domestic abuse survivors is also at a premium in Fairfax County.
Every month, Fairfax County Police receive nearly 1,000 domestic calls for service and on average make more than 160 related arrests, according to a 2013 annual report prepared for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors by the Domestic Violence Prevention, Policy & Coordinating Council.
According to the 20-page report, domestic violence hotlines countywide receive almost 260 calls each month. Also on average each month, 65 domestic violence victims request family abuse protective orders, and 14 families escape to emergency domestic violence shelters.
Sex trafficking is also on the rise in Fairfax County, creating an even greater demand for dedicated shelter space. Since 2010, the commonwealth has obtained 50 human trafficking-related prosecutions and identified 375 victims. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria has also prosecuted 24 federal cases against 50 defendants since 2011.
In October, The Fairfax County Police Department received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Justice to be able to better battle the growing trend of human trafficking in the county. Half the award, $500,000, will enable the police department to have one full-time detective and one crime analyst dedicated to the issue.
The other half of the award went to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Polaris Project, which provides services to human trafficking victims. Polaris is the organization outlined by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority national survey as providing six residential beds for the entire Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
“Polaris does a great job,” said Davies, “But they generally serve a different population in D.C. We could really use a sex-trafficking victim residential program right here in Northern Virginia.”