RICHMOND, Va. - If you think sex trafficking of children is something that happens worlds away, you would be wrong. According to the Department of Justice, more than 100,000 children are trafficked for sex in the United States every year.
However, one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the country currently does not have a standalone law combating it in Virginia, advocacy groups say.
Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax) and Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) have introduced legislation that would create a specific sex trafficking statute in Virginia. Obenshain said the Commonwealth is the only state in the continental U.S. without one.
"This is one area where we need to close the gap," said Obenshain, who adds Virginia has made progress in recent years despite lacking a specific statute.
The bill would "shed a light" in the shadows where traffickers do business, according to Hugo.
A coalition of victim advocacy groups pushing for the legislation breaks it down like this. The bills would:
- Clearly define the offense of sex trafficking;
- Criminalize sex trafficking of a minor;
- Enhance penalty to a Class 2 felony when victim is a minor;
- Eliminates requirement to prove force, fraud, coercion when victim is a minor (prosecutors currently use "abduction law");
- And, assist in properly identifying human trafficking victims.
"Gangs are finding it more profitable to traffic our children than drugs," said Hugo.
Areas like Richmond are targets for recruiters because of its proximity to Interstate 95 and other major thoroughfares, experts said.
"One of the changes from decades ago is that the 'brothel,' such as it is, is now the back of an SUV," said Del. Robert Bell (R-Albemarle).
The average age of children roped into the sex trade is 13-years-old, Obenshain said.
Henrico County assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Feimmel helped author the legislation. Feimmel has seen firsthand what liberation from the sex trade can mean for victims. Feimmel said a victim, who helped him prosecute her pimp, gave him a call not long ago.
"She called me on Christmas Day and said, 'I just want to thank you for saving my life,'" Feimmel said.
If you would like to learn more about the proposed legislation and sex trafficking in Virginia, visit Kids Are Not Sale in Virginia.