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Human Trafficking in southwest Virginia

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ROANOKE, VA -

Human trafficking is a problem WSLS has been investigating for several months. 

We went to Richmond for the first Governor's Summit on Human Trafficking to learn more about what's happening in the Commonwealth.

Lynchburg Detective Brian Smith is often called by the FBI and National Human Trafficking Center to investigate calls. He tells WSLS he's worked about ten cases in the last year in our region.

Detective Smith couldn't go on camera but says most cases were involving girls being trafficked for sex moved around constantly, for instance spending only a day or two in Danville, then being moved to Roanoke and then to Virginia Beach. The constant change makes it hard to track down the people moving the girls around, who Detective Smith say provide everything--- the transportation, hotel rooms and find clients. 

But we're told many police officers don't recognize the signs of human trafficking and don't believe they have cases.

"A lot of people call me a survivor and I can say I'm a survivor and thriver now," said Brook Parker-Bello who shared her story with us and speaks around the country. "I did survive child sex slavery and all the multiple rapes and all the multiple beatings. I did survive that." 

Parker-Bello says as a runaway, she was forced into prostitution for years as a teen in the U.S.

"We were beaten and thrown into a bathtub, stripped of our clothes, injected with drugs, hung over balconies with razor blades. we were told who were and what we were going to have to do to survive," she said. "When I heard the term teenage prostitute I was like, well that's what I was called but I wasn't that because I wasn't out there for any reason but they were putting a gun to my head and a trafficker around the corner and I was going to die if I didn't do it." 

Many of the police jurisdictions WSLS has talked to including Roanoke City and Montgomery County say human trafficking isn't happening in their area but one detective in northern Virginia says it is happening here but people just don't know what it looks like.

Human trafficking can take many forms including girls and women being moved across state lines for sex--- which often is pegged as prostitution.

"The largest hurdle when you're getting various regions to kind of engage the problem of human trafficking is getting them to realize it is a problem," said Bill Woolf, the lead investigator for the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force. 

Woolf says when he came to Roanoke for training he spent just a few minutes on the internet and found two potential cases.

"I think if we can identify some cases within their jurisdictions and show them 'hey listen this is a human trafficking case, this is what it looks like' and they start to see some successful prosecution,  they're going to be a lot more motivated to address the issue," said Woolf. 

"I think the first step is awareness," said Wes Nance, the Bedford County Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney who says hearing stories like Parker-Bello's hits home. "WWe've seen some real-life issues in our neighborhood." 

The internet is making it easier.

"As the use of the internet is used for darker and darker purposes on the underbelly of the internet you're going to see more of these cases come to light," says Nance. 

Nance says police have to dig deeper. For instance a prostitution sting used to end once a prostitute was arrested but police need to go beyond and find out if they're working on their own or if they are being forced and it's a human trafficking situation.

"Find out who is using and abusing them to bring those offenders to justice," said Nance. 

In the process, getting help for victims like Parker-Bello who now has a non-profit to help other survivors. 

"Anything that affects any neighborhood in America is going to affect us on a national level, on a tax payer level, it's going to affect us financially as a country system, the healthcare system it's going to affect tax dollars so there's a reason for everyone to get involved," said Parker-Bello. 

Over and over in our WSLS investigations, we've been told training is key but we talked to one state leader who says they know our area doesn't get the training other parts of the state do and they are working to find a fix. 

Friday is the first meeting of the Western Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force. WWe're told this is a very structured group that will train officers, make sure cases are handled properly and information is shared.

We will be there for the kick-off and of course continue to follow the issue of human trafficking in our area.

If you'd like to learn more about Parker-Bello and More Too Life visit her website

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