RICHMOND, Va. — Over the next two days, anti-human trafficking advocates will be in Richmond as part of an ongoing effort to eradicate the problem.
The 3rd Annual Regional Human Trafficking Summit, hosted by the Regional Interdisciplinary Collaborative Working to Disrupt Human Trafficking (RIC) is being held at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in the McGlothlin Medical Education Center.
RIC was formed in 2021 and is comprised of a variety of local, state, and federal groups in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
“The issue of human trafficking affects, frankly, all of our communities across the entire country. But, we do see that our eastern seaboard, our major hubs, our ports –Richmond, DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, all the way up to New York City — we see a large preponderance of this activity,” said RIC board member and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Penn State University Glenn Sterner. “We have the opportunity here to collect and connect members and organizations across the region to talk about — how is it we can share practices? How do we share knowledge? And how do we do this in a way that is more than just ‘human trafficking 101 education’ and thinking more deeply about how it is that we can use our knowledge and our practices to disrupt this unfortunate and illegal practice in our region.”
Among those taking part in the seminar are those with lived experience with the issue, including the event’s emcee — Shamere McKenzie, whose titles include the first appointed anti-trafficking ambassador for Jamaica, CEO for the Sun Gate Foundation, and training manager for the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
“Human trafficking is not something I read in a book, watched on television, or researched. Human trafficking was my life for 18 months. 18 months to what I described as torture,” said McKenzie, who said when she was in college in New York and struggling to pay tuition after losing a scholarship — a person she considered a friend lured her into trafficking. “They do a really good job of selling you this dream or selling you this opportunity. When you’re in that vulnerable position. My vulnerable position was my desire to get my college degree.”
McKenzie said she escaped after 18 months, but does not consider herself a victim or survivor.
“Because we’ve all survived something,” said McKenzie. “I consider myself a liberator. One who has broken free from the chains of her past and is determined to make a difference in the life of others.”
McKenzie said it took five years for her to discuss what happened to her as she had to overcome the psychological trauma, but has since been working in the anti-trafficking field for the past 13 years.
Others at the seminar include Virginia groups — the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Founded by Patrick McKenna in 2011, a time he said when Virginia was considered among the “Dirty Dozen”.
“One of the worst states in the United States for our response to human trafficking on whatever it was — labor or sexual trafficking and our response to minors, victims of human trafficking,” said McKenna.
He added that while Virginia has made improvements since then — including more tools for law enforcement, support for victims, and training — there is still work to be done.
“Shared Hope International, which grades a state’s response to human trafficking for minor victims of human trafficking, we’re still in F,” said McKenna. “When you consider that we still keep in our statutory process, the ability to prosecute juveniles for prostitution and other commercially sex-related crimes — there’s an issue. Because, by definition, in Virginia law and federal law, that child is a victim of child abuse. And we should be prosecuting the buyer and those who are oppressing them.”
Another avenue where McKenna said Virginia needs to improve is allowing for victims of trafficking to have criminal charges they incurred during that time vacated.
“Two years ago, I will say that we had a historic breakthrough in that those victims, survivors who had been criminalized in the past for prostitution…can go into court now and have those charges to vacated and expunged. But, nationally, and this is true to Virginia, 60-plus percent of survivors have criminal charges other than prostitution. In fact, we have one survivor who, in fact, has no prostitution charges, but she does have six convictions for grand larceny,” said McKenna. “Those who have been victimized and criminalized, now are stuck in a vicious cycle where they can’t get housing, they can’t get help, because they have these criminal records because they weren’t recognized as victims of human trafficking. Unfortunately, now they’re stuck in continuing vulnerability.”
As for the work at the summit, Sterner said this year is the first time they have been able to host it in person and the new format also comes at a time of a shift in focus from forming connections amongst the participants to establishing more short- and long-term concrete actions.
“The strength of what we’ve been doing is the connections we’ve been making between our members. We have examples where people are now able to reach out to other organizations across state lines to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of victims of human trafficking, finding ways to address this through initiatives and programs and projects that they are interested in doing,” explained Sterner. “This year, what we are specifically coming together is — across several domains, including criminal justice, victim services, among others — we’re thinking about how it is that we can work on a short-term goal as well as a long-term goal. And so, from this summit, we are already going to start that process of what those goals might be. And from within this experience, we’re going to then set up working groups over the course of the next year and then by this time next year, we’re going to come back and talk about the progress that we’ve made so that we can start to put actual substance attached to the goals and the work that we’re doing across the RIC.”
And while the attendees continue on with their work, they also encourage the general public to get informed about the issue of human trafficking and if they see something, say something.
“It doesn’t matter what your title is, as long as you are a human being, I feel that you can join this fight to do something,” said McKenzie. “Let’s not continue to point fingers that this is the President’s problem, this is law enforcement’s problem, this is the politician’s problem. No, this is our problem, because it’s happening in our communities. So, we’re just going to sit back and allow this issue to plague our communities? No. We have to come together through a collaborative effort, right? Because you cannot do this on your own. We have to join forces and send traffickers a strong message that they are not welcomed in our communities.”
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