Va. human trafficking panel to offer warnings, information on protecting potential victims

January 29, 2014

For most people, the phrase “human trafficking” calls to mind scenes of impoverished laborers in foreign countries. On Saturday, the Soroptimist Clubs of Manassas and Woodbridge will host a forum urging Prince William County residents to take precautions against trafficking in their back yard.

Laura Jones is vice president of the Woodbridge chapter of the international women’s organization, whose mandate is improving lives of girls and women worldwide. After learning about the victims of trafficking in the United States — including domestic workers smuggled into the country under false pretenses and runaway youths forced into prostitution by abusive pimps — she started asking everyone from legislators to parents about their knowledge of the topic.

“There are still people out there who will say, ‘I didn’t know that existed,’ or, ‘I thought it only existed in other countries,’ ” Jones said. “My goal in bringing it to the public is to increase public awareness.”

To raise local awareness of the issue, Jones organized a screening of Robert Bilheimer’s 2011 human-trafficking documentary “Not My Life.” After the half-hour film, several representatives of local nonprofit organizations will discuss their encounters with trafficking in the Washington region.

Greg Bristol, a former FBI agent who will be one of the panelists, said he will talk about human trafficking cases he investigated in Falls Church and the District. He will encourage attendees to be on the alert for signs of abuse in their communities and report them.

“There’s a lot of red flags,” Bristol said. “If you have a business next to a massage parlor, and you see that the massage parlor is open at midnight or one in the morning, and there’s a van with women getting out, call the police. If you’re at a truck stop on I-95, and you see a truck with young girls getting in, call the police or a national hotline. If people offering to clean your house speak very little English, and it’s much lower than the usual price, it’s probably domestic servitude. There’s a lot of signs here.”

Jones will also tell parents how they can protect their children. “I get very upset when I see parents not paying attention to their child in the store. It only takes seconds for that child to be abducted. Don’t let your 11-year-old go to the mall and hang out,” she said.

Rather than focusing on scare tactics, she said, the panel will offer positive messages for parents. The best way to prevent children from being victims of abusive schemes or to one day prey on others is to ensure that they have high self-esteem.

“It sounds sappy,” she said, but it’s important. “Make sure your children know to respect others [and] treat them equally and with love and kindness.”

The screening and panel discussion will take place Saturday at noon at the Kelly Leadership Center, 14715 Bristow Rd., Manassas. Free. 703-791-6804.

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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