Virginia legislator Barbara Comstock hopes to take her cause to the national level
WASHINGTON – In August 2013, Barbara Comstock stood in line to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican. Comstock was a member of the International Catholic Legislators Network, and her work in the Virginia House of Delegates on human sex trafficking had gained notoriety. But her meeting with the Holy Father almost didn’t happen.
After around 45 lawmakers met the Pontiff, Vatican ushers said the Holy Father could receive no more visitors. Comstock thought that the 15 lawmakers in line had no shot at meeting the Pope. But then she heard a voice in the State room. It was from Pope Francis. “’No, no, no, keep going!’” she recalled him saying to the well-wishers. Comstock greeted Francis and received his blessing.
“It was a very special and holy moment to be with the Pope,” she said.
Francis’s blessing came some 14 months after Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed into law Comstock’s bill to crack down on human trafficking. The 2012 law gives prosecutors additional leverage and penalties to deal with gang members who traffic girls and women. Comstock said police in Northern Virginia have found 250 victims of human trafficking and caught 70 people suspected of trafficking in the last year alone.
Human sex trafficking now is a pillar of Comstock’s campaign for Congress. Her law is the top item listed under the “Major Legislation Authored by Barbara” section of her campaign website. It had bipartisan support as a proposal in the Virginia House, and Comstock cites the law to emphasize her across-the-aisle credentials in a district that tilts conservative.
Comstock, a Republican, opposes John Foust, a Democratic member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, for the 10th congressional district in the northern Virginia suburbs in and around Fairfax County. According to the Rothenberg Political Report, a political handicapping website, Comstock is expected to win her race; the seat is listed as “leans Republican.”
To be sure, Comstock emphasizes standard Republican issues in her campaign more than trafficking: she wants to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, supports right to work laws, and calls for stronger pro-life laws.
But the 55-year-old legislator has a long history with efforts to combat human trafficking. As a spokeswoman for the Justice Department in the George W. Bush administration, she worked with her old boss, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), to secure more federal funding to address trafficking.
Comstock was in her car driving to a campaign event in Loudon County when Aleteia caught up with her to discuss human sex trafficking. She recounted her work on the issue in an energetic but not breathless tone, her voice that of a mother imparting sorrowful, necessary truths to her neighbors.
What are ordinary Americans, including Catholics, ignorant about when it comes to human trafficking?
I think it can happen anywhere. These people, they’re like any child abusers. They target vulnerable people. The average age of the victims is 13 to 14. The traffickers bore into their weaknesses. [They’re] not just the poor. You would recognize the last names of these people. They go onto social media. They tell girls, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re pretty.’”
They take them to malls and hotels. It’s going on all over – Ashburn, Vienna, Dulles. And they take them out at night and bring them back home. One girl from a single-parent family had a mother who worked but was very involved with her daughter.
How did you get involved with human trafficking as a legislator?
We had detective Bill Woolf [of the Fairfax County Police Department] meet with the North Virginia task force. Bill is a real strong leader in human trafficking across the whole area. A girl in high school in Fairfax County told a high school guidance counselor, "My boyfriend wants me to have sex with other people, and I don’t know what to do." So that was one of the pulling of the threads.
What gang members do is what’s called grooming 13- to 14-year-olds. They’re trying to target younger girls, girls insecure about everything. They suck them into a relationship. They have older women who say, "You’re so beautiful, you’re so beautiful." It’s almost a cult. Often they are in housing projects and homes. They will take them to a hotel.
How should Americans seek to combat human sex trafficking?
We are working with churches. I think churches are a wonderful fellowship group to raise awareness. These girls need to know it’s not their fault. The traffickers will say, "This is your fault: you’re beautiful." Our truck stops are working with us. They’ll put a 1-800 number in a bathroom. Letting young people know about this is important.
Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.