somebody elses problem waynesboro nonprofit tackles sex trafficking in the valley
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Somebody else’s problem: Waynesboro nonprofit tackles sex trafficking in the Valley

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The girl, pregnant, didn’t know where she was, just that the men in the box truck had dropped her off at a hospital, somewhere.

She was of no use to them anymore. Sex traffickers don’t make money selling guys on having sex with pregnant teens.

So, they left her at the front door to Augusta Health in Fishersville.

She was somebody else’s problem now.

Sex trafficking isn’t somebody else’s problem. Waynesboro Police have investigated 38 sex-trafficking cases since 2020, a mix of out-of-state rings using Facebook to entice teen runaways and men who want to have sex with them to local hotels and local cases involving parents using a child to make money to pay rent or buy drugs.

Kristan Crummett-Dollar is the director of the victim-witness program in the Waynesboro Commonwealth’s attorney office. Jessica Garcia is a member of the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking advisory board and serves on two committees for the Virginia Victim’s Assistance Network.

Crummett-Dollar and Garcia, in 2020, founded Magnolia Rose, a Waynesboro-based nonprofit dedicated to finding safe spaces for victims of human sex trafficking in the Shenandoah Valley.

Local cops and state troopers have their cell numbers. As do the folks in the emergency department at Augusta Health, and people working the desks at hotels along Interstate 64 and Interstate 81.

They get calls in the middle of the night from frightened girls and young women who fear calling the police because the traffickers have told them that they’ll all go to jail if they do.

Who have nowhere else to turn.

Lack of law enforcement resources

The calls to Magnolia Rose don’t just come from Waynesboro. There aren’t a lot of law enforcement resources related to sex trafficking in our part of Virginia, so they come from up and down the Interstate 81 corridor.

“On this side of the state, there is no dedicated agency just for sex trafficking,” Garcia said.

In the bigger metropolitan areas – Richmond, Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia – police departments have formed multi-jurisdictional task forces to try to tackle sex trafficking.

What is done out west of the Blue Ridge is piecemeal at best.

“We’re down a third of our officers in Waynesboro, so we’ve been so short-staffed, and we haven’t been able to dedicate days to just investigations, it’s kind of been when something’s reported, we respond. So, we’re more reactive than proactive right now,” Crummett-Dollar said.

Traffickers know this, at least sense it. The Valley is ideal for what they want to do. Every interstate exit, it seems, has a hotel, or multiple hotels, and they don’t want to stay in one place for too long anyway, out of fear of attracting law enforcement attention.

What they want to do is settle down for a day or two, put what amounts to an ad on social media, make a few bucks, then move on to the next place.

The regional task forces in the bigger metro areas at least give law enforcement a fighting chance to track movements of whatever rings might be operating in their areas at any given time.

There isn’t a coordinated multi-jurisdictional sex trafficking law enforcement effort in the I-81 corridor, and local police are strained to be able to do even the basics as it is.

The result is a game of whack-a-mole that the traffickers are always going to win.

Filling the gaps

The Magnolia Rose team is filling the gaps in the here and now.

Crummett-Dollar, Garcia and a team of volunteers searches the internet for trafficking advertisements, which are surprisingly not all that hard to find.

“Facebook is the number one platform, but there are specific platforms and websites that actually advertise people for services, and all you have to do is go into those certain sites, and you can put in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and it will pop up list after list of girls advertised just in Harrisonburg, Virginia,” Crummett-Dollar said.

The ads are very specific.

“Some of them will even post how much they charge for 30 minutes, per hour, what they will do and what they won’t do,” Crummett-Dollar said.

“What Jess and I have been trained in is, and it sounds gross, but we have to look at these girls’ pictures, and a lot of them is full nudity, but what we look at is, what’s in the background of that picture? Is it a selfie? Or is it somebody taking a picture of that girl? If somebody has taken a picture, you know, there’s somebody else with her,” Crummett-Dollar said.

And then, what’s in the background? Is it a studio apartment? Or does it look like hotel? And if it’s a hotel, then, how new of a hotel is it?

“We even look at emojis in the postings,” Crummett-Dollar said. “Emojis mean different things when they’re advertised about how old they are. And if there’s a younger girl with them, they will typically put two-for-one deal or some sort of jargon. And typically, if they don’t show that second girl, typically that means they’re under the age of 18.”

Roped in

Traffickers, on their side, are also trolling social media, looking for young girls who are unhappy at home, to entice them to become runaways, promising a new life.

“When a girl posts, Nobody understands me, my family doesn’t love me, I’m running away, I don’t even have a family, then that trafficker swoops in, I’ll be your daddy, I’ll show you what true love is. I’ve got this job, I’ve got all these cars, I’ve got this nice house, we can travel together. That’s how they get roped in,” Crummett-Dollar said.

And once they’re roped in, it’s hard to get out, because traffickers will often take the IDs of their victims, and use the threat of being arrested on prostitution charges to keep them from calling home or calling the police.

“A lot of times, our victims, when they’re reaching out, do not want law enforcement involved, period,” Crummett-Dollar said. “They don’t trust them, because a lot of times these girls have criminal histories out of being trafficked, and so they think that we’re going to come in and help them, but if law enforcement comes in, they’re going to get arrested, because the majority of the time that’s what happens.”

Horror stories

One case involved a young girl who was being trafficked by a motorcycle gang.

“We were trying to get her to a safer place, and we did end up getting her placed at a shelter,” Garcia said. “The first one was in Maryland, so I drove her personally all the way up to Maryland, to stay there and hopefully stay safe. Unfortunately, COVID hit a week after we had placed her there, and that shelter shut down. So, I had to drive back to Maryland and picked up this victim and brought her back to Waynesboro.

“Homeland Security got involved in the case, because we needed help finding a safe place for this victim to go. So, they placed her at a shelter here in the state. And I won’t say what name, but the shelter that she was at, I think it’s, like, two or three days later, she called us, and she said, girls are being trafficked out of the shelter. She called begging us to help her get out of there.

“It was a very rough time. Luckily, we were able to work with her. We got her somewhere safe. Obviously, it took a lot of a lot of time and patience and locating resources for her.”

The toughest cases, Crummett-Dollar said, are the ones that she calls “familial trafficking – parents that will use their children to have sex with a landlord just to get their rent paid, or for drugs. We see a lot of that.”

“We just had a case of a 10-year-old within the last few weeks,” Garcia said.

The girl in the box truck left at Augusta Health was last Christmas.

“Pregnant, had no idea she was even in Virginia,” Garcia said. “She had been trafficked out of North Carolina. Luckily, we were able to get her back home to mom, so she’s back in North Carolina. She has a baby. He’s nice and healthy. But it was pretty scary. She had gone in with stomach pains. We still have no idea who was driving the box truck.”

Another case came from a girl who called a hotline from outside the local area who was actively being trafficked from her home.

“I just kept on the phone with the hotline and told them, Please keep her on the phone. I’m going to be there, just tell her to come running, to be looking for my vehicle. And sure enough, she did she come running with a trash bag on her back. She got to my car and was screaming, go, go, go,” Crummett-Dollar said.

Getting them out, and helping them build a new life

Magnolia Rose has plans to open a drop-in center to give sex-trafficking victims a safe place to just walk in and thus walk away from the bad situations.

Getting girls and young women to safety is a top priority. Along with it is building toward stability for victims who often don’t even have their IDs.

For some, that’s reconnecting with family; for others, it’s maybe getting back to school, or a GED program, getting a job.

“A lot of girls that we found, their ID has been taken by the trafficker, so Jess and I have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting high school transcripts to be able to go to DMV to get an ID and then Social Security office to get a Social Security card and then a birth certificate. And it’s a lot of work to get that done just to get an ID,” Crummett-Dollar said.

“Some of these girls, you know, we’ve helped them get to a shelter, they’ve reported to law enforcement, they had a court case, and then it happens again. And it’s, like, what went wrong in that case for this person to get drawn back into the life to be trafficked again? And Kristan and I found that, you know, they leave a shelter, but if they don’t have job skills, if they don’t have an education, they can’t work, they can’t be independent. So, that’s really our goal, is to help these girls and women become independent,” Garcia said.

Building awareness

Crummett-Dollar and Garcia have made contacts with managers and desk and housekeeping staffs at local hotels to try to give them a sort of Trafficking 101.

The idea is to build the team of people on the lookout for possible trafficking activity by getting more people on the lookout for the red flags.

“What you’re looking for is, somebody’s not allowing us into the room to clean, they’re taking towels off our cart when we go to the next room, they’re taking their own trash out. Or we can see girls on the camera coming in the back way to the hotel when the person is actually checking in, or they’re paying cash, or they write down a phony license plate number on the registration. We get a lot of calls from hotels when they’ve noticed something, and then that’s when we’ll call Homeland Security, or we call our local PD to say, Hey, this is what we’ve got,” Crummett-Dollar said.

The contacts with local police, the hotels, the growing base of volunteers, it all helps, given the lack of official resources.

But it still feels like they’re just dealing with the tip of the iceberg in terms of the problem that exists.

“It’s really hard to admit this is happening in the community. We run into that a lot. And that gets to the heart of the problem,” Garcia said.

“The biggest thing is raising the awareness and the funding for our law enforcement to be able to develop that task force team and to work together, because these traffickers move down jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and getting them multi-jurisdictional, deputized, like they do for the drug task force team, it’s, let’s do the same thing. Instead of chasing down drugs, we’re tracing down traffickers,” Crummett-Dollar said.

Chris Graham

I write books, two on UVA basketball, one on pro wrestling, one on politics, which is getting to be like pro wrestling more and more each day. I've finished three marathons, but I'm over that. Oh, and I'm a progressive who voted for Biden, but I'm over that, too. (We need somebody else in 2024!) Want to reach me? Try [email protected]