Amid evil, faith is his driving force

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Detective Bill Woolf Jr., a member of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force and Gang Investigation Unit, has added more responsibilities to his already-packed schedule. He goes to schools and churches to talk about human trafficking - a growing problem affecting young people in Northern Virginia.

Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry that involves 12 million victims worldwide. Most of the victims Woolf has rescued are young girls gang members recruited and later exploited as sex workers.

A parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville and a husband and father of five, Woolf is trying to educate communities and families on how to prevent these crimes.

"Nobody should take advantage of a young girl and victimize her the way these individuals do," Woolf said. "Our job as Catholics is to stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves."

Evil in the world
Helping others as a police officer fulfilled Woolf's childhood dream of following his father and grandfather's footsteps. It all happened in a roundabout way, he said.

After graduating from a Prince Williams County high school, Woolf attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He wanted to be a doctor but quickly switched to foreign affairs and Spanish, hoping to work in drug-enforcement policy.

During his sophomore year at UVA, he fell in love with Lori. "I just knew the Lord was calling me to marry her," he said. They were married by senior year.

While starting a family as a full-time student, Woolf had an epiphany. He called his father to let him know that he would finish school, but then he was going into the military or law enforcement and asked for his guidance.

Woolf joined the Fairfax County Police Department as a patrol officer two months after graduation. His plan was to spend three years with the police and then become a federal agent. "Those three years came and went very quickly," Woolf said.

Feeling fulfilled at his job and wanting to stay in Virginia while Lori was going through nursing school and her first pregnancy, Woolf stayed in the force.

He joined the gang unit, which had the "perfect mix of investigative work and street work" that offered him some balance.

"Sometimes in this job you only see the evil in the world and that can get very hard to deal with," Woolf said. "Working with gangs not only was I able to clean up neighborhoods and free them of gang control, but I was also able to work with a lot of at-risk youths."

About two years ago, Woolf noticed that gang crimes were shifting from drug trafficking and violence to human trafficking - a crime involving deceit and coercion that affects about 100,000 children in the United States.

After the unit's first sex-trafficking arrest, Woolf realized he needed to learn more about how this crime affects its victims.

"They don't act like victims; they don't ask for help," Woolf said. "But once I understood the psychology behind it and what was really going on with these girls then I really started to become more passionate about the issue."

A lot of times, he said, traffickers isolate young women and exploit them as objects in the sex industry.

Woolf said that often gang members prey on their victims and indoctrinated them to feel part of the "gang family."

Many of the victims in the area, usually between 14 and 16 years of age, continue to live with their biological families while they are being used in the sex industry, he said. Absentee parents might not consider their daughters going away for a weekend a big deal because they believe they "should have more freedom."

"These girls just want a sense of identity; they want a sense of belonging," said Woolf. "And - if they are not going to get it at home - the gang members are just standing around, waiting to welcome them in. As these girls get attached, they feel a sense of commitment and loyalty. And, as hard as it is to understand, (sex/prostitution) essentially becomes the chore that they do for their family."

Because the exploited women think they are consenting, their emotional and psychological scars often go untreated.

That is why the unit takes a victim-centered approach.

"I find myself quite often not necessarily in a role of a law enforcement officer or an investigator but more as a social worker," Woolf said. "You have to act very quickly; you have to take them to a safe place where they are going to get the treatment that they really need."

Faith keeps you sane
Woolf said that having a strong relationship with God has helped him to "stay sane" while trying to put away the criminals hurting these young women.

"A lot of times you hear an officer saying, 'There can't be a God,'" Woolf said. "My faith is central to my life. It's what drives me day in and day out."
But, he said, that was not always the case.

After his mother passed away when he was 15, Woolf's faith was shaken, and he needed something to make sense of his role in the world. Although he continued attending Mass at Holy Family Church in Dale City, he "started to focus on other things" like going to events at a Mormon church with his friends.

"I longed for that sense of belonging and I kind of found it there," he said.

When he went to college, Woolf stopped going to Mass. He was living his college life but felt empty. After he met Lori, who was Baptist, they went to her church.

A few months after they married in a Baptist church, Woolf felt called to return to the Catholic faith.

"I was walking home from class and it was like being hit by a two-by-four," Woolf said. "The need to come back to the Eucharist just overwhelmed me."

He prayed about it because he knew this could create conflict in his young marriage. After talking to Lori, he went to confession and Mass and "felt fulfilled again."

"That emptiness that I have felt for so many years was fulfilled," Woolf said.

He thought Lori was going "to convert right away," but that didn't happen.

"We would go to both Mass and the Baptist service on Sundays and that got taxing after a while," Woolf said. "I prayed and prayed. I just knew I was not going to leave the church again."

Woolf started to see God's hand when they were expecting their first child and Lori offered to have their child baptized in the Catholic faith. Another time, she asked if he wanted to have their marriage blessed.

Later - after eight years of marriage - Lori went to Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes but was not convinced. She then read a book on conversion given to her by somebody she met at a playground and told her husband she was ready to convert.

"There was no outside influence," Woolf said. "It was all God, 100 percent."

Lori joined the Catholic Church in 2010. Sharing their faith as a couple and as a family brought them joy and peace.

"We got married obviously young and, being a police officer, we had financial struggles and lots of things along the way, but when that happened I knew that we would be together forever," Wool said.

Now Bill, Lori and their five children, ages 1 to 8, try to nurture each other's faith every day.

"Part of my strength comes from my kids' faith," Woolf said. "Seeing their devotion, seeing their development and understanding is just amazing."

Helping others to heal
Just as his faith permeates his job, Woolf's work at the human trafficking unit affects him as a father.

"When I'm interviewing a lot of these girls, I so often see my daughter sitting across from me and think about what my wife and I need to be doing as parents to make sure that they don't end up in that chair," Woolf said. "I see the pain and the hurt in these girls day in and day out and I don't ever want that to be my children."

Woolf and his unit continue working to rescue these girls and make sure they get the services they need to heal and realize they are not throwaways.

"Our No. 1 priority is providing them with services," Woolf said. This can be challenging, not only because of the limited resources, but also because the traffickers have isolated the girls, "rewiring their basic emotional and psychological needs."

On average, he works 60 hours a week; there is just too much to do. But the challenges are worth it, he said.

"Knowing that I'm taking somebody off the streets that has done a terrible, terrible crime and preventing that person from hurting anybody else is a motivation for me," Woolf said. "Nobody should be allowed to take away a girl's dignity and reprogram her to think that she is less than anybody else."

Negro can be reached at mnegro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @MNegroACH.

Find out more
Read about Woolf's talk on human trafficking, here. 

National Human Trafficking Hotline: If you are a victim of human trafficking or have information about a potential trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. It's anonymous, confidential and available toll-free 24 hours a day.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013