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Catholic Charities focuses on prevention of human trafficking

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This story was updated Feb. 12.

A seemingly casual and safe encounter with a young man at the mall turned into a life-changing experience for Susan Young’s 15-year-old daughter who became a victim of human trafficking in Springfield six years ago. Her daughter was going to be sold to an out-of-state gang for $2,000.


If her daughter had been arrested, she would have been charged with a crime. “Trafficking laws were not passed in Virginia until 2015,” said Young.


Young shared her story and the impact it had on her family with members of the quarterly Parish Liaison Network meeting at St. Mark Church in Vienna Feb. 8.


The meeting fell on the World Day of Prayer against Human Trafficking. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge released a statement that read, “There are millions of people around the globe who are the victims of sex or labor trafficking, and we know that sadly, these evils exist even within our own diocese.”


“Today we pray for an end to this grave offense to human life and dignity. In union with Our Lady and St. Josephine Bakhita, we pray for the healing of victims, for the perseverance of those who dedicate their lives to eradicating these evils in our world, and for the conversion of those who perpetrate the evil of human trafficking.”


Other speakers included Deacon Marques Silva, director of the Office of Child Protection and Safety; Kay Duffield, executive director of NOVA Human Trafficking Initiative; Bill Woolf, executive director of Just Ask Prevention; and members of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle.


Virginia ranks seventh in the country in calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, most from Northern Virginia, Norfolk and Richmond, according to Woolf.


The Department of Justice estimates that by the year 2020, human trafficking will surpass both the drug and arms trade, said Woolf.


Woolf, a former Fairfax County Police detective, said this issue of human trafficking is “something that is somewhat foreign to us. I thought it was something that happened overseas, affected only foreign populations.” He didn’t realize it was a problem in Northern Virginia until he was working with the gang unit on an MS-13 case.


“It can affect our communities, neighborhoods, schools and parishes,” he said. “Until we’re educated to eradicate this, it is going to keep happening.”


Woolf said human trafficking is defined as compelling a person to engage in paid sex or forced labor. “A lot of what we see is a specific grooming process targeting youths,” he said. “They are slowly manipulating them.”


Parishes can become a safe zone, according to Woolf, if the staff is trained to react appropriately. “Victims can stay stuck because they don’t know who they can go to,” he said.


Deacon Silva said 59 percent of Arlington high school seniors have had training in human trafficking. “The real response needs to be at the parish level,” he said.


Chrissy Turgeon, a parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Herndon, said she worries if she is doing enough to keep her daughter safe. “I have a 14-year-old daughter and I want to make sure that I know what to look for, what is going on,” she said. “Am I monitoring her phone enough?”


Judith Branagan, a parishioner of Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, said it was good that the Christian community has a role to play. “It’s not just law enforcement,” she said. “It’s the faith community. It’s so powerful that we can all do our share.”


St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle is an example of a Christian community working to help victims of human trafficking. As a SHEPHERD (Stop Human Trafficking and Exploitation. Protect, Help, Empower and Restore Dignity) parish, they educate lay and religious leaders about human trafficking from a Catholic perspective.


St. Francis parishioners Gene Sellers and Mary Lou Koehl spoke to the parish liaisons, highlighting some of the activities they’re involved in, including offering presentations, raising money for teddy bears for the ACTS SAVAS (Action in Community Through Service Sexual Assault Victim Assistance Services), making rope bracelets with a prayer attached based on Isaiah 58:6-8: “Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn ... ”

Sellers talked about changes that need to be made to the laws in Virginia, including adding lewd acts related to victim grooming and indoctrination to criminal code; increasing tools for seizure and forfeiture of proceeds; giving seized proceeds to funds for victim assistance and local prosecutors and law enforcement; increasing focus on labor trafficking; expunging victim criminal records and convictions; and changing data collection by law enforcement and prosecutors.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019