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Attorney General Jason Miyares discusses efforts to end Human Trafficking in Virginia

Attorney General Jason Miyares is looking at the camera during a remote interview. He is wearing a suit with a photo of former president Ronald Reagan behind him.
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VPM News Focal Point
Attorney General Jason Miyares discusses efforts to end the crime of human trafficking

Attorney General Jason Miyares discusses efforts to end the crime of human trafficking 

Attorney General Jason Miyares says Virginia must end the “hideous crime of human trafficking” and discusses efforts by law enforcement, survivors and advocates to support victims, train officers, and educate the community to stop this crime that he says, “happens in plain sight.”

TRANSCRIPT OF VIDEO

Roberta Oster: Fighting human trafficking is one of your top priorities. Why is this so urgent in Virginia?

Jason Miyares: I think what makes human trafficking such a hideous crime is it's multi-generational, it not only impacts the victim but oftentimes some of the trauma from it can emerge even decades after they've been through being a victim of human trafficking. And it impacts their relationships with their future partners, and sometimes their future children. And so, it is a particularly heinous form of crime. And, and I like to say human trafficking, tragically is a crime that happens in plain sight. People erroneously think it's not happening in their community. It is. And oftentimes, it's happening, right in front of you, you don't even realize that you are interacting and talking to a victim.

And I think it's really important to both raise awareness and then tackle it. Because as we've gone over on the other side of COVID, one thing we have seen is we've seen skyrocketing rates of addiction, and tragically, what we've seen is the rise of what we call familial trafficking, in which family members that are so caught in the cycle of addiction, they're willing to traffic their own child or their sibling in order to feed their addiction. And so, it is a problem that is not just nationwide, but it's absolutely prevalent in Virginia.


Watch VPM News Focal Point’s story on human trafficking: Human Trafficking: Survivors of sex trafficking counsel and advocate for others


The Governor's Commission, can you talk about that? What's the mission of the commission? And then if you could list the key roles that you have [for] law enforcement and survivors.

Governor Younkin, and Suzanne, this is a passion project for them. They launched the Human Trafficking Commission and they brought in the stakeholders that are both victim rights advocates, people that are advocates for trauma-informed counseling for victims and also law enforcement. And I'm a big believer the best way to fight bad information is with good information. So, the purpose of that, we have representatives from our office on that commission as well, is to make sure that law enforcement and victim services and local government is having the right information.

You know, the two largest criminal enterprises internationally... the first is narcotics, but the second is human trafficking. It's a $150 billion a year criminal enterprise. And it is, unfortunately is, drawing more and more bad criminal actors of organized crime into that space. And they're trafficking younger and younger children as a result. And so, we want to make sure that law enforcement knows the signs to spot for. We want to know.. those on college campuses - know what to look for, our hotel clerks because...

As I said to those working with the victims, you know, you're on the front lines of what has become, unfortunately, an invisible war. And it's an invisible war with casualties, and they're innocent victims that have been caught up and being trafficked. And what's so heartbreaking is when you talk to those that are the survivors of human trafficking, a lot of times they don't even know when they're being trafficked, that they're actually victims. They've been so abused, they've been so psychologically manipulated, they don't even realize at the time that they're victims, and it takes removal from the situation, so they can realize just the level of trauma, manipulation, and control that's been exerted over their life. And that's why it's so important to make sure the trauma-informed counselors, that can help them go on that path of healing. And that's ultimately what we want. The victims ultimately have amazing intrinsic value and potential. And we want to be able to have them meet their potential and break away from the cycle.

Let me ask you, if I may, about your appointment of Tanya Gould.

Tanya is, not only is she a survivor of human trafficking, but she's been a passionate advocate for it. She has received a presidential commendation from President Biden, for her work, she is recognized, I'd say across the country by those in the spheres as a leading voice. So, we're honored to have her be part of our team and be part of that coordinator, working with so many different groups, part of meeting with some of our Human Trafficking Task Force that we are part of, and law enforcement, so they can have that perspective.

I think that's so important for law enforcement to be more effective at their job. It's so important that they have that perspective from those that have been through it. They get the proper training, they know how to identify the victims, and most importantly, they know how to work with the victims for them to be able to tell their story. And that's a lot of what prosecuting human traffickers, what people don't realize in many ways that's a way for the victims that have gone through this as part of their healing process to be able to take, to be able to push back and be able to testify and make sure the individuals that have brought so much pain and trauma to them is held accountable and held responsible, most importantly, is off the street, not creating more victims in the system.

And if you could relate Tanya to the Commission explain, if you could list for us who's represented. You have law enforcement, and you have experts.

Tanya is on the commission from the Office of the Attorney General. We have representatives from the Virginia State Police. We have representatives from the Department of Criminal Justice, we have a variety of individuals from that work with victims on the frontline, like Safehouse and others, Samaritan House and others that are representatives on this commission. So, the idea is to bring people from all levels of government, state government, local government, law enforcement and victims and victims’ advocates together both to tackle the issue, make sure best practices are implemented and work together to fight this evil, heinous crime.

Thank you, I would love to ask you about Virginia. So, you talked about trafficking in a larger sense globally and nationally. How bad is it in Virginia? How bad is human trafficking?

We've absolutely seen an uptick. I mean, we've gone through COVID, which is very traumatic, and the level of social isolation has led to additional increase in addiction and mental health issues. And people get in the throes of addiction. And in some cases, they're willing to traffic their own family members to meet their addiction. So, we've seen this uptick in familial trafficking. It's happening in every community, rural, urban, suburban, so it's definitely prevalent in Virginia. It's something that we're pushing back on, want to both enhance the penalties. We've seen some enhanced penalties in Virginia. Our office has pushed forward, we're grateful for both, additional training required training for people going through police academies, the Virginia State Police, so they can know what to look for to be able to determine that a victim is indeed a victim.

Our office has launched what's called the National Child ID Kit, where every single middle schooler in Virginia, middle school student is able to get a National Child ID Kit that they can take home that their parent has available to them, if God forbid they're ever abducted, because one thing we've seen is absolutely an increase of bad actors that are out of state that strike relationships up with, you know,12, 13, 14, 15 year-olds, and they don't realize the person they're chatting with it is not another teenager to meet up. And obviously, abductions can occur.

So, that's one part of the reason why we've launched the National Child ID Kit. We have over 4,000 perp kits that are for sexual assault identification kits that had not been tested. And we've gone through that backlog that rape kit backlog, and we're proud that after 4,400 of those cases that were not previously tested, 396 have resulted in new prosecutions. So, we're very proud of that work. We've seen an uptick in sexual assault and human trafficking in Virginia. And again, too many people think, erroneously it's not happening in plain sight, it is.

We're proud to work with our friends in the... in the hotel, tourism community that are training their hotel clerks of what to look for, when people are checking in the room and what to spot, so a lot of what we're trying to do is get the right training in the right places for all the people at the front line to know how to spot victims, so in turn, help the victims, bring them into the light and then also empower them. Then they feel comfortable testifying against the person that is trafficking.

Last question about parents. What advice do you have for parents and community members, teachers, adults? What should we all be looking for?

Be mindful, your child's vote is obviously a great tool, a great gift for parents to stay in touch with their children. But there's, unfortunately, a lot of bad actors and we've seen increasing in number of bad actors that are preying upon children. If your child has an Instagram account, set the settings or any social media account, set the settings that they can't get outside messages unless they're already on a safe friends list. If you approve, check your phone because the chances are they're bad actors that are trying to communicate with your preteen or early teen child, trying to communicate with them in an inappropriate way. Be mindful that oftentimes what happens is they will also extort them, get them to send a compromising photo and in turn, use that to exploit them. So, be mindful of what's happening.

The internet is obviously a great tool, but it's also a tool that has a lot of danger and unfortunately as a parent, you just can't be worried about the dangers maybe in your neighborhood or your community. You have to worry about somebody who maybe is a state or two away trying to compromise your child. Be mindful of that Internet safety. I think it is one of most important things a parent can communicate with their child.

It's so helpful. I must take one more minute and ask you I spent an hour with Tanya, and I've been a journalist for 25 years. And she was so powerful in her professionalism, in her role at the AGs office, but also in her recovery from her horrific story. Can you give me a little thought about her?

I heard Tanya's story before I ever got elected Attorney General. And I thought she is a remarkable, remarkable leader. And, you know, I've said before, she is kind of the definition of what a quiet hero is. She's incredibly brave. She's one of the bravest women that I've ever met in my life because of what she's gone through. And I've told her she's an example of those that have been the victims of trafficking what they can look forward to. That she has both described her journey from darkness into light and how she has been able to heal and empower herself, that she is a walking embodiment of empowerment and overcoming adversity. She's a remarkable leader, I'm proud to have her part of the team, and I'm so proud that she feels the freedom and the empowerment to share her story.


Resources

In emergency situations, call 988 or 911

Virginia State Police: Dial #77 to report instances of trafficking or suspected trafficking

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

  • Deaf or Hard of Hearing? 1-800-799-4889 
  • En Español: 1-888-628-9454 

Mental Health America of Virginia Warm Line: 1-866-400-MHAV (1-866-400-6428)

  • Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 
  • Saturday, Sunday and Holidays, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. 
  • Spanish Services (Friday and Saturday), 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. 
  • Text/Chat Support (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. 

Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1

Crisis Text Line: 741-741

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: 1-800-843-5678 (1-800-THE-LOST)

National Alliance on Mental Health: 1-800-950-NAMI (1-800-950-6264)

Virginia 2-1-1 resources: Dial 211 for help with housing, food, mental health and emergency assistance.

National Domestic Violence hotline: 800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233)

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)

National Human Trafficking Referral Directory: directory of anti-trafficking organizations and programs that offer emergency, transitional, or long-term services to victims and survivors of human trafficking

Polaris Project: Polaris works to reshape the systems that allow for sex and labor trafficking in North America and operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline

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