Jessica Woelkers, a social worker with Prince William County schools, asked a group of middle school staff members last month whether they knew the average age at which children enter into human trafficking. One hazarded a guess: 16? Another suggested 15.
“It’s age 13,” Woelkers replied. “For both males and females.”
Woelkers was presenting a training session on human trafficking to teacher assistants at New Dominion Middle School, an alternative school in the Manassas area. It was part of a grant-supported program the school system has initiated to educate students, parents and school employees about human trafficking and to increase awareness of the problem.
Prince William schools started the trafficking prevention program in response to a 2012 Virginia General Assembly mandate that school systems educate students about the hazards of getting involved in teen trafficking, Young said.
Woelkers said that trafficking takes two main forms: labor and sex. In labor trafficking, people are coerced into performing work for which they do not receive a fair wage. This has been a problem for day laborers and domestic workers in Northern Virginia and in businesses such as restaurants and spas, she said.
Most of the training session focused on sex trafficking, in which teens are lured into the commercial sex trade, which includes prostitution, pornography and performing in strip clubs.
The common thread, Woelkers said, is coercion, often involving fear or threats.
Betsy Young, supervisor of social workers for the school system, told the class that teen trafficking is a problem even in relatively affluent counties such as Prince William.
“Trafficking cuts across all socioeconomic lines,” Young said. A human trafficking operation broken up by the FBI in 2012 — the largest juvenile sex trafficking bust in the United States up to that time — involved girls from Lorton and Woodbridge, she said.
It is difficult to collect accurate data on human trafficking in Virginia because the state does not have a specific human trafficking code, Woelkers said.
“They have to use abduction, [prostitution] or other categories, not trafficking, so we can’t get a comprehensive number,” Young said. “It’s very hard for us to show that there’s an issue, [although] we all know there is.”
Woelkers said traffickers have three main ways of controlling victims. The first is “boyfriending” or “girlfriending,” where a trafficker might trick a girl into believing he is her boyfriend before coercing her into performing sex acts for others.
The other mechanisms are family control — in which someone in a caregiving role exploits a child and control by a gang. Woelkers said she is seeing all three situations in Prince William.
A common misconception is that teen trafficking mostly involves runaways, Young said.
“These girls are remaining in school, at least in the beginning, and they may be trafficked out on weekends,” Young said. “In the beginning, they think the trafficker is their boyfriend. A grooming process occurs. Eventually, threats start occurring.”
Traffickers commonly approach girls through social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, start by telling them they are pretty and then follow up with gifts and promises of a better life, Young said.
The traffickers typically threaten to post revealing pictures of their victims on the Internet, to go after a younger brother or sister, to kill the family pet, or to report parents who are undocumented, Young said, to coerce their victims into working for them.
The Potomac Health Foundation has provided more than $132,000 in grant funding over two years for Prince William’s awareness campaign. The funding has paid for public service announcements at movie theaters and a billboard along Route 1 in Woodbridge, Young said. It also enabled the school system to hire Woelkers to serve as a social worker dedicated to human trafficking, she said.
Woelkers, 29, of Gainesville has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. She has worked extensively with victims of physical and sexual abuse and with homeless families.
She has provided training on human trafficking to school social workers, teachers, nurses, bus drivers, administrators and other employees, as well as to parents and students, Young said. Prince William was the first jurisdiction in the state to provide lessons on trafficking for students and staff members, she said.
“Other school jurisdictions are now following, but we were the first. We’re really proud of that,” she said.
Woelkers also presented the human trafficking lesson to 4,800 students in ninth-grade health and physical education classes last year, mostly in the eastern part of the county. The program is expanding this year into high schools in the Manassas area and the western part of the county, Woelkers said, and she is also developing a lesson for middle schools.
At the end of the classes, Woelkers gives each student a slip of paper with a box they can check to indicate that they would like to speak to someone, Woelkers said. They might know someone who has been approached at a mall or on social media, or they may have been approached themselves, she said. Last year, she said, 100 students came forward, and 41 of those were identified as at risk.
“We have a whole array of supports for the kids when they come forward,” Young said. “We do whatever we need to do to make sure that they get the support that they need.”
The school system has partnerships with several agencies to provide services, Young said, including Child Protective Services, the Prince William County Police Department, Sexual Assault Victims Advocacy Services and the Greater Prince William Community Health Center.
Ana Cody, senior manager for outreach and community engagement for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that Prince William’s emphasis on classroom instruction about trafficking sets it apart from other school systems, which focus more on awareness campaigns using publicity materials.
“I haven’t seen anything like that, because usually when people say, ‘Do something about human trafficking or sex trafficking,’ schools or communities tend to [focus on] awareness, [such as] posters . . . and that doesn’t really do much, in my view,” Cody said.
The school system is “targeting kids who could be at risk,” she said. “That’s very important, because they’re acting before the situation could happen.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.