The exploitation of humans for labor or sex has been seen in Hollywood blockbusters like the “Taken” movie series, but human trafficking hits closer... ‘If you see something, say something’: Anti-human trafficking forum offers tips
From left, RJI volunteers Danielle Radford, Amy Ellis, Linda Hawkins, Yesenia Adent, Elizabeth Rengal and Heather Caleb and House of Refuge’s Linda Addison. (Ellie Browning)

The exploitation of humans for labor or sex has been seen in Hollywood blockbusters like the “Taken” movie series, but human trafficking hits closer to home than one might realize.

On Sept. 30, the Richmond Justice Initiative hosted an event at Christian Life Church to raise awareness about human trafficking.

RJI board member Linda Hawkins has been battling to end human trafficking for three years.

“I am a retired cardiac nurse, but volunteering for RJI is like my second career,” she said. “I’m determined to go out of this side of eternity fighting the battle to end human trafficking. I could talk to you all day long about my passion for it.”

She spoke about someone close to her, “Katie” (not her real name), whose boyfriend took tricked into human trafficking.

“Katie is actually a student who was taking RJI’s signature Prevention Project at her school. She actually self-identified [as having been] trafficked while she was enrolled in the project,” Hawkins said.

The Prevention Project is a program RJI created in order to educate young people about the signs of human trafficking.

“Sometimes [the victim does] it for survival, sometimes it’s for pimps or gangs. Katie’s situation was for a boyfriend. It wasn’t until the Prevention Project came along that she realized what was happening to her. This wasn’t a boy who loved her. Katie’s story is unfortunately true in multiple places. We had one school district where eight or nine students [told] of being trafficked by either family members or family friends,” Hawkins said.

Major Edward F. Carpenter Jr. spoke about the efforts of the Chesterfield County Police Department.

“I think in years past when I was a younger officer, we viewed human trafficking as a form of prostitution,” he said, noting there were some cases the department had previously identified as prostitution that have been relabeled.

“Now that we have the training and knowledge, we are able to identify those cases,” Carpenter said. “There’s been a few cases in Chesterfield County in the past few years … we are constantly looking to see if those opportunities are present. When they are, we take the necessary action. With the great investigative work by my special victims unit, if there is a case available, we will bring to justice.”

Awareness is a key component to preventing human trafficking. Knowing the red flags, including signs of physical abuse, looking disoriented or confused or appearing to have been coached on what to say, can be the basis for a case of human trafficking.

“The biggest thing is if you see something, say something, Carpenter said. “ I think we all have those indicators, where the hair stands up on the back of your neck, or when you feel like something just doesn’t look right. If you see a kid being forcefully pulled or it doesn’t look like the relationship between them is lining up, there’s probably a reason for that. If we see something and say something, the right people can get in place and ask the right questions to possibly save someone’s life.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the real accurate statistics. Just like rape and abuse, it’s under-reported. It’s not just taking people across county lines. A trafficked victim could be sleeping in their own bed at night. There’s a lot of victims still out there. ”

Once the victims are separated from their offenders, they are often placed in refuge homes to start the healing process.

With the human trafficking re-entry rate at around 60 percent, Hawkins teams up with local non-profit House of Refuge to rehabilitate victims.

“The great thing about Katie is that she has been to restoration, healing and counseling, and she is now attending college. There is life after human trafficking,” Hawkins said.

To report a tip to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, call (888) 373-7888.

Note: A community conversation about human trafficking will be hosted by the Chester YMCA from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, at Thomas Dale High School. This community conversation will provide education and open dialogue with subject area experts about the growing concern of human trafficking in Chesterfield County. The event is free and registration is available through Eventbrite. Child care will be provided.