On an otherwise ordinary day near Springfield Mall in Northern Virginia, a car came to an abrupt stop on the side of the road. The driver jumped out, dragged his passenger outside, and threw her onto the curb. Then he got back in the car and sped away.
Luckily, Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, BS Administration of Justice ’05; MA Justice, Law, and Crime Policy ’10; PhD Criminology, Law and Society ’12, was in her own car nearby, and saw the whole thing. Mehlman-Orozco is an expert in human trafficking. An accomplished survey methodologist, research scientist, and consultant on the subject, she has served numerous times as an expert witness for criminal cases. Her work has been published in books, journals, and magazines, and widely noted in the media.
Mehlman-Orozco knew sex trafficking is concentrated up and down the I-95 corridor where the mall is located, and “the red flag was the driver of the vehicle had Massachusetts license plates,” she says. “Abandonment without money and transportation in unfamiliar cities and states is very common among trafficked situations.”
When she offered assistance to the woman, she found the woman was actually being sex trafficked, and had been for nearly 20 years. Mehlman-Orozco was able to direct her to services that led her to a new life. Ultimately, she even helped her obtain two scholarships—one a full ride—that saw her through cosmetology school.
It wasn’t the first time the Mason adjunct professor has stepped in to liberate someone. She’s also helped victims using information from commercial sex consumers online—but few cases end as happily.
“Victims are rarely rescued, and offenders are infrequently held accountable for their crimes,” Mehlman-Orozco says. “This isn’t the movie Taken. Liam Neeson isn’t going to show up to rescue his innocent-victim daughter. Sex trafficking across America is a clandestine activity, hidden within the commercial sex industry as well as in plain sight, under the veneer of legitimate businesses.”
It was in a Mason graduate course with University Professor Louise Shelley that Mehlman-Orozco first encountered the topic. “I was shocked to learn that slavery still existed,” she says. “I became impassioned to combat this heinous crime through evidence-based research and policy.”
Now the mother of four (one son’s middle name is Mason), Mehlman-Orozco says the education and mentorship she received at her alma mater was “instrumental in guiding my career path. For someone like me, who needed to work full time while providing for my family, having a prestigious university within commuting distance from my home was life-changing.”
Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium, Mehlman-Orozco’s first book, was released in October 2017, and partial proceeds will fund scholarships for human trafficking survivors and at-risk youth. Her next book, The Jihadi Next Door, will be released in fall 2018.