Groups Raise Awareness for Sex Trafficking

At age 14, her first “boyfriend” was her mother’s drug dealer. He would come to the house and bring the girl and her family food. Before too long, she was out of the house—and under the thumb of a trafficker. She was dealt from one set of hands to another for years, before one of her traffickers shot her point-blank in the right leg.

Virginia-based Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco said it took a vascular transfusion to save the woman’s right leg, but it would take far more to save the woman’s life as she knew it. And it started with saving her from her own mind.

“She thought she was a consenting co-conspirator… that’s how she explained it to me,” Mehlman-Orozco said. “Even though she was being beaten and exploited, at least she had a roof over her head and food in her stomach. It’s a sad testament to society for any woman to think that being sex trafficked is an improvement to their life.”

The girl may be nameless in this story, but her face, name and story are shared by what the National Human Trafficking Hotline estimates to be about 950 other trafficking cases reported in Virginia since 2007. Northern Virginia is a particular trafficking hotspot, as I-95 allows trafficking syndicates to move victims throughout the Washington D.C. area. Last year, over 4,400 cases of human trafficking were reported nationwide. And that only counts the reported cases.

And it is happening right here in Lynchburg.

According to Mehlman-Orozco — a Richmond-based author and expert witness on human trafficking cases — these numbers and people’s preconceptions based on popular media do not even scratch the surface of such an unquantifiable, clandestine industry as human trafficking.

“An image that often comes to people’s minds is something like the movie Taken,” Mehlman-Orozco said.  “Gun-wielding Albanian mobsters, a clearly innocent victim who’s kidnapped. It’s easy to tell the victims from the bad guys. The reason I serve as an expert witness is to educate judges and juries that that’s not how it happens.”

Cindy Kozerow, crime prevention specialist at the Lynchburg police department, said the trafficking tied to local gang activity is increasingly prevalent.

“We’ve had a few cases in the last three or four years that were suspicious for this, and one has been confirmed,” Kozerow said.

Kozerow emphasized the local department’s increased efforts to recognize signs of luring and exploitation, on social media in particular. It may be only one facet to the issue, but Kozerow and her associate in forensics have found that it is, unsurprisingly, a consistent hive for traffickers to “groom” teenagers on social media and lure them into meeting.

Eventually, the perceived romantic relationship and the carefully-built trust will feed a false sense of love and dependence from which the victim cannot easily break free.

“I remember one survivor who said that her pimp became her family because he was the only one giving her food and taking care of her,” Kozerow said. “He beat the living daylights out of her if she didn’t do exactly what he said. But in her mind, at least she was being fed and loved by her ‘boyfriend.’”

That particular woman was arrested multiple times before she was able to finally get help.

“It’s not easy,” Kozerow said. “You have to convince them that what’s happening to them is not right and they’re being used.”

Often, victims will suffer from what Mehlman-Orozco calls a “credibility gap” in the courtroom because they do not appear to be the quintessential “victim” because of their compliance and even outright defense of their traffickers.

“They often come from marginalized communities who have engaged in some coerced criminal behavior or some consensual criminal behavior for drug use,” Mehlman-Orozco said. “But that doesn’t undermine the fact that they’re exploited and used as a slave.”

Aside from tips and investigations, the key word for combating human trafficking is “awareness.” Awareness of the issue itself, thanks to charities and campaigns, and the reality of how victims struggle to move on from having been trafficked.

“When human trafficking survivors have nowhere to go, there needs to be dedicated residential vocational training and informed therapy,” Mehlman-Orozco said. “If you’re an organization that’s truly committed to combating human trafficking, you’ll be willing to work and partner with others to have the biggest impact you can.”

Local organizations and activism have taken root in response to the issue, particularly at Liberty University through the Freedom 424 club on Liberty’s campus.

The club’s new president as of this semester, student Matthew Baldwin, has been involved in organizations such as Porn Kills Love and the End It movement. Eventually, he hopes to work in some capacity with the department of homeland security to combat human trafficking nationwide. But for now, Baldwin is starting in in his own school and city.

“I think one of the top issues with (gaining traction for this movement) is that when people think of slavery, they don’t think of 2018,” Baldwin said. “They think of the 1800s. I think the big problem is not so much deep understanding of the issue, but awareness that it still exists.”

Freedom 424’s mission is to raise awareness and financial support for other organizations that are doing ground work in rescue and rehabilitation in other countries, such as Christine’s House in Uganda and Home of New Beginnings in Thailand.

The fundraising events that Freedom 424 hosts locally include the Run 4 Their Lives race (on April 28 this year) a volleyball tournament on the East Campus court and a concert of local artists at the Bean Tree Cafe (date this semester to be determined).

The focus for Freedom 424’s work is awareness and funds in full collaboration with other organizations doing groundwork where some of the greatest need is. And it starts here in Lynchburg.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Baldwin said. “If people are already making a difference somewhere, we’re going to support and empower them.”

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