RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – It's almost difficult to believe. Modern day slavery is happening right here in Central Virginia. Lawmakers are now discussing bills that would help victims of human trafficking and increase penalties for the criminals.
Many people think of human trafficking as a far away crime and something that couldn't possibly happen here. One victim told NBC12 if she has anything to do with it, awareness will spread.
Holly Smith's story sounds like something out of a movie. She was just 14 when she met a man in the mall who promised to make her part of the "in-crowd."
"Within 12 hours of him picking me up from the mall I was trafficked," she recalled. "They forced men on me. I didn't realize what was going on at first. I thought that we were going to a club."
The police finally rescued Holly, but her story was only beginning.
"It was a very tough journey afterward to heal," she said. "It took a long time."
Now, Holly is bringing that journey to the General Assembly. She hopes it will motivate lawmakers to pass several bills. She thinks one in particular would have helped her. An education bill mandates human trafficking training materials for school staff, which is something her teachers didn't have.
"They wanted to help me too but they just didn't know how," she explained. "They had no idea how to help me."
Another piece of legislation requires strip clubs post the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. Safe Harbor's Carolina Velez explained that's important because often times the victims she has counseled aren't aware there's something truly wrong and criminal.
"It is very difficult for a human trafficking victim to know that they are a victim of a crime," she told us. "It becomes 'yes I am doing this out there, but I'm also getting nurtured and getting taken care of.'"
Another bill increases penalties for johns who solicit commercial sex from minors, while one more on the issue gives law enforcement additional tools. So far, only the education bill has made real progress in either body.