When survivors of human trafficking are able to leave their trafficking situation, it is vital that they have access to services that will help them rebuild their lives. Legislation that supports victim assistance is an imperative step towards providing these services.
Holly Austin Smith, a survivor of child sex trafficking, described how these laws could have made a difference during her recovery process. Smith said,
“I am… a big advocate for the victim assistance law. After I was trafficked, I received no assistance at all: no counseling, no support. I was put back into the situation from which I was running in the first place. I attempted suicide within days of my rescue. In fact, that was the only way I got counseling, because I was put into a psychiatric facility. Victims of trafficking need immediate aftercare and placement and counseling from therapists who have been trained in this type of victimization.”
Virginia has been improving access to services since 2011 when the state passed HB 2190. This law requires the Department of Social Services to develop a plan for the delivery of services to victims of human trafficking. Since then, the Department of Social Services has formed a steering committee and has begun to review current victim service needs in Virginia. The committee is comprised of representatives from victim service organizations, law enforcement, academia, and survivors of trafficking.
Next, the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) conducted an online survey on human trafficking services in the summer of 2012. The survey asked staff at state parole agencies, correctional facilities, domestic violence and sexual assault service providers, and other core agencies to identify what resources are available to assist them in their work with human trafficking victims.
The report (pdf) found that overall, 53% of all responding agencies do not know whether or not there is a human trafficking services organization in their local service area. Of those agencies that could identify a services organization, nearly all are located in the Washington D.C. / Baltimore / Northern Virginia metropolitan areas. Further, none of the responding agencies have formal procedures or protocols that guide how to serve trafficking victims.
According to the report, trafficking victims’ most needed services include food, emergency housing, sexual assault services, counseling, case management, and coordination of services. The report also found that trafficking victims need this assistance for about 3 months. However, over 80% of agencies said that their organization is unable to adequately meet the needs of trafficking victims and the majority of respondents felt that more training is needed to improve services to victims.
Without the passage of HB 2190, the commonwealth of Virginia would still be unaware of these gaps. Importantly, this report helps to provide a road map for human trafficking advocates, organizations, and government entities in Virginia. There is a great need for continued training, especially with those organizations that have the ability and capacity to provide services to victims of trafficking, but perhaps do not have the experience or knowledge to do so.
With this report, the leadership of the Department of Social Services and the Department of Criminal Justice Services in Virginia have begun to lay the groundwork for fundamentally transforming the way that victims interface with service providers and government entities. They should be commended for bringing interested stakeholders together, identifying gaps in knowledge and resources, and mapping out what needs to be done to improve services to victims after they are identified in the Commonwealth. Next, they will need to work to execute that plan.
Laws can make a difference when they are implemented effectively. The recent report by the Department of Social Services and their ongoing work in Virginia demonstrate how laws can transform government action and put survivors of human trafficking first.