Special Report: Working to clear the names of human trafficking survivors

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HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Awareness month across the country.

It’s a hidden crime that affects millions around the world. According to the International Labor Organization, around 40 million are victims of the crime  — including in our Hampton Roads community.

Human trafficking is the exploitation of a person and includes forced labor, domestic servitude and sex trafficking.

Local resident Patrick McKenna says he found out about human trafficking after his daughter wrote a paper years ago.

“It was an eye opener for me,” McKenna said.

So, he started digging more to find out what and who human trafficking affects.

McKenna vividly remembers watching a documentary in which a girl was held captive in a small dark room.

“They flipped to an ex-pimp who said we treat our dogs better than these women because we at least take them out to go three times a day to go to the bathroom. I still can’t get past it and because I believe there’s a God, a little voice went out in my head and said ‘yeah Pat, that could be your daughter,’” he said tearfully.

That emotion lead him to help start the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative in 2011.

The non-profit works with survivors, trains health professionals, teaches in jails and is also working to open a shelter this summer.

McKenna and the organization are also trying to help survivors through legislation. 

The attorney is working to get a bill introduced in to the General Assembly that would vacate or expunge criminal records of those who have been identified as victims.

“They’re not doing this because because they thought this was a great idea. No, they’ve been forced, brainwashed, manipulated violently.I don’t think people understand how brutal some of these men and women are that victimize others,” he said.

The bill, which will be sponsored by Delegate David Yancey, was already introduced in the 2018 General Assembly and sent back with recommendations on the bill’s language to fix.

McKenna hopes that it will cover crimes and charges like prostitution, theft, possession of a fake ID, and other crimes they commit in order to survive.

10 On Your Side spoke over the phone with Barbara Amaya, who is a human trafficking survivor. Amaya now lives in Northern Virginia but was trafficked for more than a decade on the streets of New York City.

“Was a law broken? Yeah, a law was broken, however, was I a criminal or was I a victim?” she stated.

Amaya says she was arrested multiple times but never her trafficker or clients.

Her record followed when she escaped that life.

“It’s in some form isn’t it? Student loans, banking, housing, but if it wasn’t on any form anywhere in this would I still carry this stigma of being called a criminal,” Amaya said.

Her record was eventually cleared and her stigma dropped in New York. 

She says she’s tried working to get similar legislation passed in Virginia, but believes lawmakers need to understand that human trafficking survivors are victims and not criminals, so they can do well in life. 

“I know so many survivors who can’t get a job, can’t find housing because of the convictions they have. They live in states where they don’t have vacating,” she said.

McKenna knows it will be a fight to get bill passed but that won’t stop him.

“We’re excited. It’s an uphill battle because it’s not something Virginia has done before. It’s been traditionally reluctant to changing the expungement status but we’re looking to  change some hearts, some minds to that,” he said.

Hampton Roads created its own task force two years ago with local, state, and federal agencies as well as shelters to help victims.

From its start to September of 2018, they’ve had 171 new investigations, 119 confirmed victims, and made 57 arrests.

If you are a victim or know a victim of human trafficking, you can call the national trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

If you’d like to learn more, visit https://humantraffickinghotline.org/mission.

To also learn more about the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative, visit https://www.vbji.org/.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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