Area residents who may think human trafficking is not a big problem in Fairfax County would be wrong.
Offenders can be found almost anywhere that teens congregate: in malls, at parties and at most county high schools.
In the U.S., Fairfax County ranks fifth in this trade, based on calls to a national hot line, said detective Bill Woolf last week at a public presentation at St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church in Annandale.
“It’s going on here right in front of our faces,” Woolf said.
About 100 attended his presentation where he emphasized repeatedly that girls and boys targeted by “pimps” are not to blame.
“They are not prostitutes, but victims. We’ve got to change that mindset, or they view themselves as the offenders, and they won’t ask for help.”
Woolf and one analyst comprise the Fairfax County Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit. He’s been an officer for 13 years and is the father of five, including three girls, and he’s scared, too.
“The community is not standing up to address this issue,” he said. But talking to one another about teen trafficking in the county will make a difference, Woolf said. “They won’t believe you [initially],” he said.
It’s easy for traffickers to find prey. (After the program a representative said the elevator bay at Tysons Corner Mall is a notorious pickup point.)
Traffickers scout the Web and learn about personal problems.
Unknown to parents, their child may be eating and sleeping at home but working for a pimp on the side, not knowing how to escape them.
Some “parents have disengaged from their child’s life and have left the child vulnerable to traffickers,” Woolf said. Parents are busy with jobs, smart phones, and leave children in the care of televisions, X boxes, and computer games, all activities the trafficker finds out about on social media.
Many children with “issues at home” go elsewhere for the love and attention they need, making them susceptible.
The criminal promises love, money, and a future.
“Parents play a key role,” Woolf said, and “must become engaged in their children’s lives.
The trafficker knows who is weak, who is strong and who has low self-esteem, Woolf said.
Woolf enumerated and dispelled many human trafficking myths. For example, victims are not necessarily poor or immigrant.
About 85 percent are U.S. citizens (although he said later “a large number of Chinese women are being exploited in Annandale.”) Victims are not neccesarily drug addicts, but they can become addicts once they fall into the trafficker’s trap.
Boys, lesbians, gays and transgender individuals are not immune to the trafficker’s schemes.
In Fairfax County prostitution generally starts for girls between the ages of 15 and 17. In Northern Virginia Woolf has seen a victim as young as nine.
When they are rescued, “the path to rehabilitation is long, very, very long. Once they are damaged, they are damaged,” Woolf said. Victims suffer physical injuries, disease, and neurological trauma since they may have been with a pimp for 10 years and find it hard to live in today’s society.
After exiting the business, average life expectancy is seven years. Victims “are ashamed and they feel they have nowhere to turn,” Woolf said.
Enter “Just Ask,” an assistance program and prevention project, designed to expose the region’s growing teen sex trafficking through public awareness.
At Fairfax County schools, sixth through twelfth graders learn about trafficking in the nation’s only public school curriculum.
Jodi O’Hern is a mother and “Just Ask” educational liaison who also addressed the group and said hearing Detective Woolf a year and a half ago “changed my life.”
She could not believe what she heard and now urges citizens to talk to others and make them aware of the crime.
“If we don’t talk about it,” O’Hern said, “the bad guys are going to win. We need to get involved.”