Fighting for Justice

  • By:  Theresa Lynn Walker

Imagine this scenario: a young girl attends high school in your neighborhood. She seems like a stable, happy teenager. Then she starts dating an older man. He lavishes her with nice things, caters to her every whim. She falls head over heels. He convinces her to do things that maybe she wouldn’t do otherwise—like taking nude photos of her. 

Suddenly, everything changes. He tells her that if she doesn’t do everything he says, he will share those photos online. And if that isn’t enough, he threatens to harm her family and friends. After all, he knows everything about her. She feels as though she has no other option and spirals downward into a life of forced prostitution. 

Many think of sexual slavery as something that happens somewhere else. It’s terrible, but it’s not like it happens on our doorstep, right? Wrong. Sex trafficking happens right here in Hampton Roads, within our communities and schools. Let’s meet three women who work together every day to raise awareness and help victims in our area.

A Fresh Start

Dana Steele and her husband, Alan, share a passion for helping children in need. That passion runs so deep that they are currently in the process of adopting their 17th child. None of their children suffered through the atrocities of sex trafficking, but many of them come from negative family backgrounds or have special needs.

Dana learned about human trafficking and its presence in Tidewater through her work as a volunteer attorney. She learned that former foster children are at a higher risk for becoming trafficking victims and thought of her own adopted children. She and her husband felt compelled to act.

“Trafficking happens everywhere, in every area of the world,” Dana said. “People often don’t realize how much money there is to be made in this. If you sell drugs, you eventually have to get more drugs. But if you sell one girl, you can sell her over and over. This happens in our community, and we need to do something to stop it before it gets worse.”

Dana and Alan are now in the process of opening Homestead Ranch, a nonprofit home that will help young victims of sex trafficking in Virginia break free from the cycle of abuse and better their lives. The couple lives in rural Suffolk, where they are planning to buy their neighbor’s 9,500-square-foot home, which has ten bedrooms and eight bathrooms. It’s the perfect space for trafficked girls who have aged out of the foster care system and have nowhere else to turn.

“There are domestic violence shelters in Virginia, but this will be something a little different,” Dana explained. “Once a victim goes to a shelter, she often doesn’t have the resources to get herself out of that situation.”

Homestead Ranch will provide a two-year program to help these girls build successful futures. The first year, girls will live at the ranch and receive therapy, earn their GED, and learn practical skills designed to help them enter the workforce. The couple already has a large area for animals on their 22 acres of property, including llamas, horses, and alpacas. They intend to transition this into a therapeutic animal program, where girls can help care for the pets and the land. 

Ideally by the second year, the girls will be ready to branch out on their own. Dana and Alan will set them up with an apartment nearby, where they can still be reached for assistance and support if needed. 

Dana urges people to be aware that this is a problem that is here to stay. Once one falls victim to forced prostitution, it is extremely difficult to escape. People are afraid of their personal safety or they fear legal prosecution for the crimes they were forced to commit. Victims rarely come forward.

“It is so important that we raise awareness in our communities,” Dana said. “It can happen to anyone. It can happen to your daughter, your sister, your friend. Maybe these girls wouldn’t be so easily lured in if they knew this was a serious threat.” 

If you feel compelled to help, Dana invites you to contact her about donating money or volunteering time at the Homestead Ranch. They still need start-up funds to get the ranch running and constantly reach out to churches and other organizations to form partnerships. Any amount, no matter how small, will help. Dana recently wrote and published a book titled “A Starfish at a Time,” about her personal experiences growing her family through adoption. All proceeds from book sales go toward opening Homestead Ranch. 

“Human trafficking is not an issue that any one person can conquer alone,” Dana said. “It truly takes an entire community.”

Sharing a Dream

Lori McKenna is another active part of that community. She, along with her husband, Pat, founded the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative in 2011. It is a grassroots organization of volunteers who share the dream of ending human trafficking. With a focus on trafficking that happens in our own backyard, Lori and Pat conduct programs to increase local awareness and educate the community through prevention campaigns and fundraising events. 

“This happens all around us, and we don’t even know,” Lori said. “It happens under the surface, and that’s what is so scary about it. Sneaky, insidious stuff like this happens all the time. People need to be aware.”

The seed for the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative was planted during a service at New Life Providence Church several years ago. The congregation watched “Call + Response,” a powerful documentary that encourages activism against human trafficking on a community level. She watched the agonizing footage of abused children and teenagers, and the images never left her. She began looking into what she could do to help. Two years later, the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative was born.

“I was totally ignorant that this happened at all in the United States, much less in my own community,” Lori said. “It broke my heart. I knew I had to get involved.”

Today, the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative is funded completely through donations and fundraising. The organization has a core group of about 12-15 volunteers, with many more people involved and connected through occasional events and social media. Lori is anxious to spread the word and raise awareness even more within the community. 

This year, the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative is specifically focusing on addressing this topic in local schools. Young students may be victims, and teachers need to be trained to know what trafficking is and what it looks like. According to Lori, there are many common warning signs in victims. These include people losing touch with normality, acting secluded from society, suddenly missing a lot of school, constantly expressing exhaustion, or randomly displaying expensive items. The organization is currently working with schools to install programs that will educate not only instructors, but also students and parents.

“It is really important to share the word,” Lori said. “Until recently, this issue hasn’t been talked about on a local level. I am grateful for all of the amazing things that are happening, but we can still do so much more.”

Currently, victims who come forward usually go to a domestic violence shelter. While that is helpful, those who have suffered through sexual trafficking violence suffer severe trauma for years. They need something more lasting than a temporary shelter—something similar to Dana Steele’s vision for Homestead Ranch—and there is currently nothing available in the state of Virginia. VBJI is working with other local partnerships to make this happen.

“We value these partnerships because we could never do all of this by ourselves,” Lori said. “It is so important that we all work together to make change happen and to make that change last.”

A Safe Haven

Beth Cross, executive director of H.E.R. (Help and Emergency Response) Shelter in Portsmouth, is another partner who is active in the fight against sex trafficking. H.E.R. Shelter, established in 1985, serves women all across Tidewater. It is a private, nonprofit agency that provides advocacy and resources to those affected by domestic violence or homelessness. H.E.R. Shelter offers a 24-hour emergency hotline, as well as safe, emergency housing for those in need. It houses 42 women and children. In many instances, these are victims of sex trafficking crimes. 

Beth started at H.E.R. Shelter in 2006. She considers it the best job in the world.

“Seeing these women and children in such tough spots just really gets under my skin,” Beth said. “The kids at the shelter are so awesome. To know someone is living a better life because I came to work today is so consistently rewarding. I have never had personal abuse in my life. I’ve always had a great support system, and I just want that for everyone.”

With trafficking, providing support helps, but it isn’t always enough. Women and men who are thrust into sex trafficking are forced to stay in these situations through blackmail and violence. When they finally convince themselves to break free, they still fear for their safety and privacy, oftentimes for years to come. Or as is frequently the case, many victims return to prostitution because the money is quick and easy, and they know nothing else.

According to Beth, human trafficking is currently the second largest source of money laundering in the world (in between drugs and firearms). These three things are the main focus of the black market, which accounts for five to eight percent of the global economy. 

“Human trafficking is not something that is going away,” Beth said. “Where a dollar can be made, someone is going to make it. It is the dark side to economic development. To combat this for good, we need a global shift, and we need a personal shift.”

Sixteen victims of sex trafficking are knowingly rescued each year in Hampton Roads. This number is so small because so many victims will not seek help because they fear being charged with illegal activity, such as solicitation or prostitution. Virginia recently passed a law to help protect victims from being prosecuted. However, there is sometimes a fine line between those who willingly sell themselves for money and those who are coerced to do so. 

“If you really want to help with this problem, don’t buy prostitutes! Don’t be a prostitute!” Beth said. “We laugh about it because it sounds like such an easy fix, but people are out there doing it, and it’s a big part of the problem. The porn industry is also a problem. A large portion of men and women who are in the industry are forced to be there.”

Other avenues traffickers use to gain the trust of victims include acting as a significant other or posting modeling advertisements online. People respond to those ads, then disappear.

“We are just scraping the surface of what’s happening here,” Beth said. “This is a constant wheel of power, control, and abuse, and it will be virtually impossible to ever break the chain completely. There is no easy answer.”

 Services that H.E.R. Shelter offers are just a small part of the anti-violence equation—small, but important. The Shelter offers a 24-hour monitoring system, protecting residents with alarm systems and police detail, who sit outside when needed. The shelter is also actively raising awareness on women’s issues in the community. They sponsor fundraisers and offer training to educate people about sex trafficking. They also have a bakery called Sweet Haven, which is designed as a place not only to produce baked goods to be sold to give back money to the shelter, but also to teach valuable job skills to residents. 

“It’s important that we, as a community, look out for each other,” Beth said. “If there is an increased awareness and effort, more victims will be recognized and hopefully seek help. There is a way out. It helps if they know where to turn.”

Sex trafficking is truly a silent crime. Here in Hampton Roads, people are being bought, sold, and smuggled as modern day slaves. The victims may be unseen, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need help. Fiercely dedicated women like Dana, Lori, and Beth have joined forces to raise awareness and be a voice for these victims. Let’s help them now by spreading the word. 

For more information or to help this cause:

• Homestead Ranch - www.homesteadranch.net

• Virginia Beach Justice Initiative - www.vbji.org

• Her Shelter - www.hershelter.com 

Theresa Walker is a graduate of Virginia Wesleyan College and lives in Virginia Beach with her husband. 

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