This article was written by: Katie King
Published: Virginia Pilot
At a high-end clothing boutique years ago, Del. Shelly Simonds saw an older woman shopping with — and yelling at — a young woman who looked frightened. They didn’t appear to be related, and something about the situation felt strange.
“Later I realized that maybe this young woman was being trafficked and it has really haunted me,” said Simonds, D-Newport News.
The delegate, first elected in 2019, is now among the legislators pushing for more statewide efforts to raise awareness about human trafficking.
Simonds introduced a measure during the recent legislative session to require all hotel employees to undergo training to recognize the signs of human trafficking. Her bill — and several others aimed at combating human trafficking — were signed into law last week. Gov. Glenn Youngkin also recently created a new state commission, devoted to preventing human trafficking, that will serve in an advisory role to him.
The commonwealth — and Hampton Roads in particular — is a high-risk area for human trafficking, said Patrick McKenna, director of the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
“Virginia is consistently in the top 15 (states) for reported cases of human trafficking — and Hampton Roads, it’s kind of the perfect storm,” he said.
Trafficking thrives in transient areas, McKenna said. With a large military presence and tourism industry, as well as a major interstate, airport and seaport, Hampton Roads has a population constantly coming and going.
“As a community, we need to be so on top of things and so alert to the signs of it that traffickers are afraid to come here and be exposed and prosecuted,” McKenna said.
Simonds hopes her bill will help. It requires the Department of Criminal Justice Services to provide cost-free training to hotel employees on recognizing and reporting suspected human trafficking.
Liz Parker, president of the Newport News Hospitality Association, said the association supports the new law.
Many large chains already have training in place for employees, she said. But budget lodging or independently owned hotels may not.
“We need to make sure that all hoteliers are aware because when someone has been taken, they may stay at hotels overnight before going to their next stop,” Parker said. “We want to make sure all hotel associates know what to look for.”
Other measures signed into law: a bill to establish training standards for law enforcement regarding how to recognize and report human trafficking; and a bill that allows local school divisions to incorporate age-appropriate programs about human trafficking into their high school curriculums.
Although Simonds was pleased with this year’s progress, she plans to introduce more legislation next year.
“We need to make sure we are helping victims recover and be welcomed back into society,” she said. “There is a lot more work to do.”
Tyller Holden is one of the recently appointed members of the Commission on Human Trafficking Prevention and Survivor Support — tasked with providing recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly regarding how to best support survivors and prevent human trafficking.
Holden, a Virginia Beach resident affiliated with a nonprofit aimed at helping human trafficking victims, said she’s looking forward to helping the governor’s administration find solutions. She hopes to encourage the administration to work on youth outreach.
“I really want to create a program or curriculum that we can implement into the school systems,” she said, adding that many high school or university students are unaware of the dangers of human trafficking.
In a recent statement, the governor said the conviction of human traffickers and the empowerment of survivors were among the state’s top public safety priorities.
“We must remain vigilant to ensure that those who work tirelessly to combat human trafficking and help survivors are equipped with the tools necessary to win this fight,” he said.
Katie King, firstname.lastname@example.org