Hermitage senior’s human trafficking
project ‘a practice of faith’


Atrocious scourge


Seventeen-year-old Philip Kamper didn’t know much about human trafficking before entering his senior year of high school, but what he would learn would change his life.

Kamper, a parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel, Glen Allen, attends Hermitage High School’s Humanities Center, a four-year program for select students from across Henrico County. Each year’s elective course is dedicated to a different topic, with senior year covering several issues, e.g., racism, genocide and human trafficking.

Representatives from The Prevention Project, an educational program created by nonprofit Richmond Justice Initiative, visited Kamper’s class to highlight how prolific human trafficking has become.

Members of The Prevention Project travel to middle and high schools, church gatherings, businesses, and other groups to educate people about human trafficking in hopes it will help prevent it from happening. It was developed by human trafficking survivors, law enforcement personnel, advocates and educators. The pilot program started at Hermitage High School and has since been implemented in states across the country, reaching tens of thousands of students.

Kamper learned that human trafficking wasn’t limited to the international kidnappings portrayed in action movies, but that it happens everywhere and can happen to anyone — from affluent teens to undocumented immigrants. It is widespread, being the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world, behind drug trafficking.

In dedicating his senior project to educating as many people as possible, Kamper also saw it as a way to practice his Catholic faith.

“We are all called to spread the Word of God, just as we need to take that ability and spread the word about issues like human trafficking. Education is prevention. Human trafficking is a preventable issue, and we can be the ones who bring an end to it by spreading the word,” he said.

Over several months, he planned and coordinated an educational seminar that took place on Jan. 15 at St. Michael Parish. He invited Henrico County vice detective Joe Wechsler, forensic nurse Megan Pond and Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Feinmel to share their experiences with human trafficking.

“I really wanted to highlight what we are doing in Henrico and the state of Virginia to prevent and combat trafficking. I felt this would bring a balance to awareness and an appreciation that we live in a place where our legislators, police and health care professionals are fighting for the end of this prolific industry,” he said.

The parishes of St. Michael and nearby St. Mary helped. The former provided space for the event and both parishes offered volunteers. The latter supports Safe Harbor through its endowment fund for human concerns. Safe Harbor is a shelter that houses survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence and sexual abuse. St. Mary recently gave Safe Harbor a grant for their counseling and Safe House programs.

Luring the vulnerable

Wechsler has been investigating human trafficking since 2012. He explained how human traffickers lure their victims, noting that a lot of trafficking happens incrementally and depends upon psychological methods to manipulate victims.

He said a trafficker can look up someone’s Facebook profile or scroll through their Instagram posts to learn more about them. They can then start a conversation online, ask them to meet somewhere and begin what the victim may believe is a relationship but in reality is a trap. They can look for a vulnerable student who is at odds with their parents, or doing poorly in school, or is a social outcast, and they can promise the student a better life.

“When you take a human being that is at the lowest and most vulnerable in their life and pair it with a master manipulator who has a golden tongue, once they have their hooks in them, that’s when the proposal is made,” said Wechsler.

Under federal law, an individual who uses physical or psychological violence to force someone into labor or services or into commercial sex acts is considered a human trafficker. While some victims experience beatings, rape and other forms of physical violence, many victims are controlled by traffickers through psychological means, such as threats of violence, manipulation and lies. In many cases, traffickers use a combination of direct violence and mental abuse.

Traffickers can also feed victims’ addictions, keeping them dependent on drugs or alcohol and therefore maintaining control over them, he said. Wechsler’s unit is dedicated to finding traffickers and turning victims into survivors. Every year he visits hotels in Henrico County to educate the workers about how to spot sex traffickers. His team also surfs the same websites traffickers do in order to catch them in the act.

Wechsler said that some victims feel that they had sold their soul when they were first bought for sex, and afterward didn’t feel like they had anything else to lose.

“There’s more to life, and they are redeemable, and there is something on the other side of this,” he said. “That’s why I’ve stuck with it as long as I have.”

Combating ‘modern slavery’

Feinmel has prosecuted human trafficking cases for years and was instrumental in getting the Virginia General Assembly to adopt a landmark commercial sex trafficking law.

“The Richmond area has really become the foremost area in the country for fighting the battle against human trafficking. We think of ourselves as the gold standard,” he said. “We were once the capital of slavery and now we are leading the charge to combat modern slavery.”

Feinmel spoke about the problems that existed with previous laws and how they failed victims. For example, there was mandatory prison time for a second offense of selling drugs but not for selling a human being. He used this comparison to help convince General Assembly members that a new law was needed.

For months he met with them one-on-one, educating them about human trafficking and explaining how it is a form of slavery. He told them how traffickers prey on the impoverished and wealthy, on runaway children and middle-aged addicts, on immigrants and the marginalized.

He also pushed for the law to criminalize traffickers’ use of force, intimidation or deception and for it to be a crime to even encourage someone to engage in prostitution. The legislation passed in 2015, making Virginia the last state in the country to enact a commercial sex trafficking law.

No ‘victimless crime’

Since 2013, Pond has treated hundreds of patients through Bon Secours’ Human Trafficking Initiative.

“I thought prostitution was a victimless crime,” she said. “Boy, was I wrong.”

Her job entails not only caring for victims by mending their wounds, administering medication and running tests, but also educating medical staff on how to recognize a victim of human trafficking.

Pond also works with Henrico County police officers who bring victims who consent to medical treatment. For adults, they provide a safe place in which to talk and help find shelter at places like Safe Harbor.

If the victim is a child, then they can call Child Protective Services. Most minors are runaways or homeless. They utilize a program called Language Line, which provides an interpreter for any language. There is also a Human Trafficking Hotline and Textline.

Reaching out as Jesus would

“It doesn’t take a lot to make a difference,” said Kamper. “One conversation can make the difference.”

He hopes to pursue a career in law enforcement. He wants to help people. In dedicating his senior project to battling the scourge of human trafficking, Kamper has already begun working toward that goal.

“For me, I really thought of the ways that Jesus spent his time reaching out to those victimized and marginalized,” he said. “We are called to do the same and as a community be the support system they need to get the word out and help those who are already victims to get back on their feet and into their own lives.”

**Listen to Pope Francis’ message about human trafficking at https://thepopevideo.org.

Documentary a call to battle trafficking

SAN DIEGO (CNS) — “Blind Eyes Opened: The Truth About Sex Trafficking in America” begins with this scriptural passage from Isaiah: “to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”

Over the hour and a half that follows, viewers’ eyes will indeed be opened, not only by the many disturbing facts related on-camera by law enforcement personnel, legislators and those dedicated to facilitating the healing of trafficking victims, but also through the haunting first-person accounts of six survivors of this modern-day form of slavery.

During the film, viewers hear from survivors who share Jesus’ role in their recovery. The film also shows Christian ministries reaching out to those in the commercial sex trade, and it concludes with a direct challenge to its Christian viewers to do more to combat this societal scourge.

The film tackles such topics as the insidious ways in which children are lured by traffickers who often prey on vulnerabilities such as low self-esteem and an unstable family life; how law enforcement has shifted from viewing trafficked persons as criminals to recognizing them as crime victims; what additional steps that American society can take against trafficking; and what resources are currently available to those fortunate enough to escape from such a hellish life.

Among the many heartbreaking stories recounted in the film is that of Edie B. Rhea, founder of Healing Root Ministry Inc., a nonprofit led by trafficking survivors.

Her father died when she was 4. A few months later, a man named Bill moved in with her and her mother. He molested her when she was 10 and, two years later, began selling her for sex to strangers.

A childhood photo of a smiling Edie is seen onscreen as the grown woman recounts her lost innocence and the multiple rapes she endured at the butcher shop that Bill and her mother owned. On one occasion, Bill prostituted her in exchange for a new meat grinder.

Rhea says in the film that she believes that there were “lots of opportunities for people to see (what was happening), but they didn’t see.”

“The signs were there,” she added. “They just looked the other way.”

In its unflinching look at sex trafficking, “Blind Eyes Opened” also takes aim at pornography and abortion.

One of the six featured survivors is Brook Parker-Bello, now the founder, CEO and executive director of More Too Life Inc., a nonprofit that provides mentoring and education to trafficking survivors. She shares that her trafficker forced her to undergo multiple abortions.

During her onscreen interview, she pauses, seemingly holding back tears. In a broken voice, she reveals that, as a lasting legacy of those abortions, she has experienced several miscarriages during her marriage and has been unable to carry a child to term.

“Blind Eyes Opened” concludes with a powerful call for Christians to enlist in the battle against sex trafficking.

“You’ve got to fight the fight,” Kevin P. Malone, co-founder and board president of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, tells viewers near the end of the film, “and I believe, when the Church accepts that responsibility and really engages, we can make a major difference.”

Editor’s note: For more information about the film, visit www.BlindEyesOpened. com. Parishes interested in learning how to host a screening can do so by visiting www.faithcontentnetwork.com, clicking on “See the Current Film Line-Up,” and selecting “Blind Eyes Opened: The Truth About Sex Trafficking in America.”

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