A closer look at Virginia's new protections for human trafficking victims

Vacatur law
Posted at 9:14 AM, Aug 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-06 09:14:05-04

NORFOLK, Va. — Olivia, a human trafficking survivor now living in Hampton Roads, said she was trafficked at 18-years-old.

"I first started getting trafficked when I was living on a park bench, said Olivia. "I was 18 years old. I probably could have went home, my mom probably would have took me back, but I was young. I was rebelling. And I felt like I didn't have anything or anyone, so when finally someone said, 'OK, I'll help you. I'll take care of you.' I didn't realize what that really meant."

She said she was emotionally and physically beaten down for more than a decade. She thought her traffickers would kill her.

That's why, she said, she felt she had no choice but to comply with what her traffickers wanted.

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"I had to hold guns sometimes for my traffickers," said Olivia. "Sometimes I had to hold drugs that I didn't do or use, or go into stores and steal, steal from people, sell myself. You know, a lot of things I knew was wrong but I didn't really have much of a choice but to do them. I used to pray every day the police would arrest me so I could stop what I was doing."

Like many others who are trafficked, she wound up with a record and ended up in prison.

Criminal records are something Courtney Pierce, an anti-trafficking outreach and direct services coordinator at Samaritan House in Virginia Beach, said can severely impact those trying to rebuild their lives after trafficking.

"If someone has a felony or a charge of prostitution it can be very difficult for folks to look past that and see that this person was forced, frauded or coerced into that, which we would define as human trafficking," said Pierce. "So we want to make sure people understand folks are more than one decision that they've made."

She added it plays a big role in finding jobs and finding safe housing.

Now, a few human trafficking-related laws are kicking in.

One requires hotels to provide human trafficking training to employees (Va. Code §§ 35.1 - 15.1). According to Pierce, the majority of survivors the Samaritan House sees had been trafficked through hotels.

"We think it's important to have hotel and motel staff to know what [human trafficking] looks like, so they feel comfortable reaching out to the national hotline, our hotline, or calling local law enforcement," said Pierce.

"We want to make sure they have all the tools they need to be able to protect their patrons and also protect their employees," said Briana Bill the environmental health coordinator with Office of Environmental Health Services at the Virginia Department of Health.

VDH began checking hotels for compliance in July.

Over the past month, Bill said, they've found most Hampton Roads hotels to be properly training employees to spot human trafficking warning signs.

Along with that, a 2021 vacatur law is being put to use (Va. Code §§ 19.2-327.2 et seq. and 19.2-327.10 et seq.). It helps vacate criminal records for human trafficking survivors that acted under the influence of others when committing certain crimes like prostitution.

Under this law, prosecutors said Olivia's case made history. Former Virginia prosecutor Meg Kelsey filed a petition, and Olivia was the first in Virginia to have had a court vacate her convictions under the vacatur law, according to administrators with the Regent University School of Law's Center for Global Justice.

"Victims of human trafficking can suffer consequences and trauma long after emerging from their circumstances of being trafficked," said Meg Kelsey, assistant director of the Center for Global Justice at Regent University School of Law.

"It's huge," Olivia said. "I feel like I have turned a new leaf."

She said this, and therapy, are helping her move forward.

Administrators added that Olivia's willingness to speak out is not only courageous but is an inspiration to other survivors.

Regent Law opened the Center for Global Justice earlier this summer to advocate for survivors.

Human trafficking isn't just sex trafficking. It can include forced labor as well.

The Samaritan House's crisis hotline is 757-430-2120.

More resources and information on human trafficking can be found here.


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