Hidden in Plain Sight: Survivors share stories to help combat human trafficking in Hampton Roads

human trafficking
Posted at 9:01 PM, Jun 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-27 11:17:01-04

Part 1: What is human trafficking?

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Human trafficking is one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time. It's a global issue, and Hampton Roads is not immune.

The Polaris Project says 25 million people are being trafficked worldwide. A fraction of those victims are either trafficked through our area or groomed for sex and labor work in the 757.

News 3's investigative team is dedicated to shedding light on the problem that's plaguing the place we call home and sharing the stories of the people who have survived the unthinkable.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, traffickers use fraud or coercion to force their victims into sex or labor for money.

The evil industry, the trafficking hotline says, generates billions of dollars in profits by victimizing people in the United States and around the world.

The latest stats from the Polaris Project reveal there were 16,658 victims of trafficking identified in 2020 in the nation. At least 10,836 were sold for sex and 3,583 were sold for labor.

According to federal prosecutors, 53 percent of victims in federal human trafficking prosecutions in 2020 were children. 89 percent of child victims in active sex trafficking were between 14 and 17 years old.

In fact, the Polaris Project shows one in seven children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children became victims of sex trafficking.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that's why reports of runaways should be taken seriously. Runaways or homeless youth are at the top of the list of people vulnerable to human trafficking. So are people with unstable housing, mental health concerns, substance abuse and people who have recently migrated or relocated.

Traffickers are forcing their victims to get money for sex and labor through escort services, pornography, illicit massages, bars, and strip clubs, and domestic work. Victims are being recruited by traffickers using social media, especially child victims.

According to program directors at the Samaritan House, a locally-based resource for survivors, it's happening to children here in Virginia, too.

Samaritan House officials say Virginia recently ranked 15th in all of the United States when it comes to human trafficking. Executive Director of the Samaritan House Robin Gauthier tells us she thinks factors making Hampton Roads a hot spot for human trafficking include a lot of military and hotels and motels in major cities of our area.

She also thinks access to our local highways and waterways could play a role. So we dug deeper to find out how prevalent human trafficking is in Hampton Roads.

We show you what's being done to spot and stop human trafficking in our community, by sharing the stories of those who are directly impacted and making a difference.

Experts advise to always keep your eyes open for situations that may seem suspicious. According to the U.S. Department of State, some red flags to identify a victim can include submissive or fearful behavior. It's how one Norfolk Uber driver was able to save a woman who later admitted that she had been trafficked since the age of 14.

Related: Uber driver takes efforts to stop human sex trafficking in Virginia Beach

We found documents that showed that an Uber driver called the police when his young female passenger didn't know where she was going and said that the situation seemed odd.

Survivor-turned-advocate Olivia Reposa from Survivor Ventures, a local non-profit, says she knows the horrors of being trafficked and praised the Uber driver who called authorities.

Part 2: Labor trafficking

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Worldwide, experts believe there are actually more instances of labor trafficking than sex trafficking happening, but there is a wider awareness about sex trafficking in the U.S. than there is about labor.

It's called modern-day slavery and it's happening in Hampton Roads. You may be witnessing it and not know it.

There are other forms of this that may be right in front of you — in restaurants, on farms, and on construction sites.

Forced labor happens when someone is compelled against their will to provide work or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.

For victims coming from overseas, traffickers can gain control by promising a great life with benefits like schooling and shelter. But those promises are often revealed to be empty ones and comfort can turn into control by using fear of deportation.

Part 3: Warning signs of human trafficking

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Human trafficking is not like the movie Taken. While the movie paints a picture of what trafficking can look like, the example of Liam Neeson's crusade against a high-profile, international sex trade operation is not the norm.

Remember, victims and perpetrators can both appear as average citizens. According to Polaris, many survivors have been trafficked by romantic partners, spouses, family members and friends — people who they trust and look up to.

Recent cases highlight the problem in our backyard.

42-year-old Thomas Hassell of Portsmouth is waiting to be sentenced after pleading guilty to trafficking a 17-year-old girl, according to federal court documents.

An undercover sting went down at the Norfolk Marriot Waterside back in January 2021.

Records indicate that Hassell posted naked pictures of the teen online, would set up "dates" with clients and paid for hotel rooms while giving the girl drugs and taking at least half of the money she made.

Prosecutors named almost 1,500 victims in federal human trafficking prosecutions in 2020. 53 percent were children, mostly girls.

Also in 2020, 89 percent of child victims in active sex trafficking cases were found to be between 14 and 17 years old. All commercial sex involving a minor is legally considered human trafficking.

Protecting our youth by noticing the signs — that's exactly what one local program aims to do.

This year, the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force was one of two groups nationally chosen to participate in a federal initiative called Traffick Stop.

The program focuses on educating high school kids about the dangers of human trafficking. In collaboration with the Newport News Police Department and Newport News Public Schools, the action plan teaches identification and prevention curriculum, as well as training law enforcement to deliver the curriculum in schools.

Traffick Stop also aims to promote online safety and build healthy relationships. But according to the Department of Homeland Security, it's important that education about human trafficking continues outside of the classroom too. That means having those talks at home.

In the book Finding Sierra, a 12-year-old girl is missing. It's a fictional character that Derrica Wilson, a former Virginia police officer and founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, says is based on real cases.

According to the National Trafficking Hotline, more than 70 percent of trafficking victims were targeted via Facebook and Instagram in 2020.

It's similar to Sierra Knight's story. A determined detective discovers Sierra met someone on a social media app, someone she trusted to pick her up from school one day, before she vanished for weeks.

The detective rallies her colleagues and local journalists to help bring Sierra home.

Part 4: Runaway children

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Most missing children are considered runaways. But just because those children chose to leave home, it doesn't mean they're any less vulnerable to predators trying to sell them for sex or labor. In fact, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says it makes them a prime target.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's database reveals there are nearly 5,000 children reported missing in America right now.

One in seven children reported missing became victims of sex trafficking, according to data from the Polaris Project. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that's why reports of runaways should be taken seriously by law enforcement and the media.

"They run into potential gang recruitment, certainly violence," a spokesperson with NCMEC said. "Being the victims of violence, whether it's physical sexual abuse, homelessness [or] recruitment into child sex trafficking."

Wilson, the co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, says a lack of urgency from law enforcement to find runaways leaves families to organize searches on their own.

The longer kids are missing the more likely traffickers will lure them in, selling them for sex or labor. If runaways are lucky enough to survive the streets and escape, trauma can trump the joy of returning home.

Runaways are being trafficked in our communities. One sting operation out of Hampton Roads revealed a 14-year-old girl was transported up and down the East Coast for sex trafficking.

We spoke with Hampton Police talking about a case involving this man, Anthony Jermaine Foman. The self-proclaimed pimp pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a minor and transportation of child pornography.

Documents obtained by News 3 say it started on December 15, 2020, when officers found an ad for a woman and arranged to meet at a hotel on Mercury Boulevard for sex. When they got there they found the girl, another woman, and eventually Foman, hiding behind a bathroom door.

Through further investigation, officers found out Foman met the girl a month prior on social media. The documents go on to say Foman took the girl to six states up and down the East Coast — Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, South Carolina and Florida — to prostitute herself.

Earlier this year, Hampton Police got felony warrants for Foman's arrest on state charges. After his arrest, authorities say child pornography involving this girl and himself was found on his phone.

Part 5: Human Trafficking Commission


For years, a Hampton Roads human trafficking survivor has used her experiences to raise awareness and help others that have been down similar paths.

She's now in a new position to help here in Hampton Roads and across the Commonwealth.

"I'm a human trafficking survivor. This is a life. This is a culture, and all of us were trapped." Tanya Gould said. "Human trafficking is about coercion and manipulation. At the time, I didn't realize I was a victim."

It's a path Tanya Gould, a Chesapeake woman, says she is all too familiar with.

She was graduating from high school, on a senior field trip, when she recalls meeting one specific person.

"My trafficker was someone who I fell in love with, and that was his way of bringing me into that life," she said. "I thought that doing what he asked me to do was about us being together."

Gould says it turned into a year and a half of sex trafficking. She says with the help of a police officer, she eventually was able to get out. Today, she's paying it forward helping other survivors, working at the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters and on human trafficking policies at the state and federal levels.

This year, Gould was named Director of Anti-Human Trafficking under new Attorney General Jason Miyares' administration. Since starting her new role, Gould says her focus has been partnering with groups in Hampton Roads and around Virginia, including the Samaritan House, making sure they have the tools needed and are all collaborating under one mission.

One goal of hers in Hampton Roads is prioritizing a focus on minor sex trafficking.

The first human trafficking task force for Hampton Roads was created in January 2017. To give you an idea of how big the problem is in Southeast Virginia, that task force initially anticipated that it would rescue and serve 10 to 12 victims of trafficking each year.

Since then, the Samaritan House reports they've provided support services and housing to 125 victims on a yearly basis.

Part 6: Mental health and trauma

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We're highlighting how survivors heal and how we can all help them along the journey. We've been digging into the issue of how trauma can change your DNA and what the road to recovery looks like.

Imagine spending every day in fear it could be your last. Dede Wallace with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations says that's the reality for victims of human trafficking.

"You and me will never understand that the first person that tells you, 'I love you and I care about you,' is also brutalizing you as they're doing it," Wallace said.

Kelly Andrews is a Virginia Beach psychologist who also works with trafficking survivors. She says victims develop coping techniques to protect themselves, and that can have a permanent impact on the body.

"Research shows that it can change your DNA," she said.

But experts say the damage doesn't have to be permanent. The first step to recovery is admitting they're a victim.

The latest data from the Human Trafficking Hotline shows that 31 percent of victims are recruited by a family member, 27 percent by an intimate partner, people who are supposed to love and protect them. Making their worst nightmares come true.

And living in constant chaos, research shows, has significant impacts on the human brain.

"Your prefrontal cortex is attached to your limbic system inside, and your brain stem, when they're all attached then they're working as a safe environment, " Andrews explained.

When experiencing trauma, your prefrontal cortex, which allows you to make rational decisions, opens. That disconnects it from your limbic system, which controls emotions. When the two separate, people can become irrational.

"It's like taking a baseball cap off. You can't think straight, and you can't think straight because your prefrontal cortex is not working in connection with your limbic system," she said.

And imagine that baseball cap being taken off several times a day, forcing you to constantly live in a state of fight or flight.

When asked if someone can ever truly recover from being trafficked, Andrews says yes and that if they couldn't recover she wouldn't be in this business.

Reestablishing those connections in the brain can take weeks or even years. Andrews says victims must learn to re-process memories, and they can do that through therapy.

No matter the trauma, they say there is light at the end of the tunnel.

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, here are some local resources that could help.

Samaritan House

Samaritan House is the leading resource for housing and services for victims of trafficking in our region, providing an effective, trauma informed response to victims of trafficking and supportive services to these individuals. The number for Samaritan House's crisis hotline is 757-430-2120.

Human Trafficking Hotline

If you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect someone you know is a victim, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. The hotline is toll-free, and operates 24/7. You can also email

Attorney General's resources for victims of human trafficking

The Virginia Office of the Attorney General is working to combat the issue with the help of a new Human Trafficking Task Force. Through training, outreach and awareness campaigns, the Task Force aims to prevent human trafficking in Virginia.

Their website also includes links to the following resources: