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Sophia Belletti

Virginia Battles a ‘Crime that Hides in Plain Sight’: Human Trafficking

By Sophia Belletti and Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Robin Foster had worked with abused and neglected children for years, but it wasn’t until she came face to face with a trafficking victim that she fully recognized the dimensions of the crisis that brought a 17-year-old to a hospital emergency room early one morning.

The teen came to the hospital complaining of a sore throat but ran off when Foster tried to call her mom for permission to treat her.

“I chased her up the street at 1 in the morning,” Foster recalled.

Foster, who heads the Child Protect Team at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she later learned from police the girl had run away from her group home in Northern Virginia and was being trafficked by a man in a hotel in Richmond.

Human trafficking – a $150 billion global criminal enterprise, according to the International Labor Organization – is increasingly on the radars of law enforcement, politicians and nonprofits across the country. Statistics show the problem is worse in Virginia, and in the Richmond area, than in many other states and localities.

In 2017, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking for sex and cheap or free employment. Last year, the state reported 156 cases, and 70 percent of those were sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Richmond ranked ninth nationwide in the number of calls per capita to the hotline, according to the organization’s 2017 report on the 100 most populous U.S. cities. Virginia Beach ranked 71st for calls per capita and Norfolk was 77th.

The Richmond region’s location at the junction of interstates 64 and 95 makes the area an attractive place for traffickers, as does its large tourism and hospitality industry, says the Richmond Justice Initiative, a faith-based, anti-trafficking group.

While there is not an official estimate on the number of trafficking victims in the United States, the Polaris Project, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization that runs the hotline, estimates the number to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a bill giving federal and state prosecutors greater power to pursue websites that host sex-trafficking ads and enabling victims and state attorneys general to file lawsuits against those sites.

Trump’s action came a few days after several executives from the website Backpage.com were arrested on 93 indictments including knowingly facilitating trafficking through their website and allegedly laundering millions of dollars. The deaths of some trafficking victims have allegedly been linked to the website.

However, critics of the bill say it conflates legitimate and willing sex work with forced trafficking.

“I think it’s ridiculous that the two are being compared because the key difference is that trafficking victims cannot choose to stop working, they are not being empowered by what they do like sex workers are, and it (the bill) doesn’t address the reasons why people are being trafficked,” said Fay Chelmow, founder and director of ImPACT Virginia.

Chelmow founded ImPACT, a nonprofit fighting to prevent and end the sex trafficking of children, in May 2015 after reading the U.S. Department of Education report, “Human Trafficking in America’s Schools.” Chelmow said she was alarmed to learn how vulnerable youth are lured into the commercial sex industry by traffickers who scout middle and high schools.

“There still needs to be more advocating work around simply educating people that this is an issue in the first place, because trafficking is very profitable,” said Chelmow, a registered nurse since 1984 and a former hospice and palliative care nurse in Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to Richmond in 2010. One of the reasons trafficking is so lucrative for criminal perpetrators, she said, is that they can sell the same person “over and over and over again.”

Human trafficking “is a crime that hides in plain sight,” said Charlotte Gomer, press secretary for Attorney General Mark Herring. “It is very difficult to identify victims and prosecute traffickers. Trafficking is about supply and demand and, unfortunately, as long as there is a demand for commercial sex and cheap or free labor, human trafficking will continue to exist.”

She said the attorney general’s office works with the city of Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties to provide training, resources, victim services and operational assistance to combat trafficking.

During this year’s General Assembly session, Herring won passage of legislation that will make it harder for people who are charged with trafficking-related crimes to post bail – essentially placing a presumption of no bond for such offenses.

Del. Michael Mullin, D-Newport News, cosponsored the legislation with Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond. Mullin, who works as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Suffolk focusing on sexual assault and gang-related cases, said that fighting human trafficking transcends partisan politics. The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously and has been signed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

“This is a bipartisan issue and something everyone seems to agree we need to work on,” Mullin said in a statementearlier this year.

Gomer said Herring has been working to combat human trafficking since he took office in 2014. In early 2017, Herring signed a memorandum of understanding creating the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force, a partnership involving his office, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Virginia State Police and Hampton Roads law enforcement agencies, and Samaritan House, a Virginia Beach nonprofit that provides emergency shelters for domestic violence victims and homeless families.

Advocates Press for Prevention and Solutions

At Children Hospital, Foster said the biggest medical roadblock when helping child human trafficking victims is finding them a secure place, away from their exploiters.

“Where do you place these kids? So what if you recognize that they’re victims? You can’t discharge them home, so where are we putting them? A lot of the time they have drug dependency so they might have to stay in the hospital to make sure they don’t have to go through drug withdrawal,” Foster said.

Foster said helping victims is even more difficult in the case of family-controlled trafficking.

Elisabeth Corey, a survivor of family-controlled child sex trafficking and abuse, recounts those experiences in her advocacy and book, “One Voice.” She said that her encounters with domestic violence and incest began when she was 2 years old and that after years of familial sexual abuse, her father began selling her.

Corey said her parents were highly involved at medical appointments but answered the doctors’ questions with lies. For example, Corey said she was seen frequently at a young age for urinary tract infections, but her mother told nurses it was a result of bed-wetting. Corey said that should have raised alarms because bed-wetting is a symptom, not a cause of urinary tract infections. Likewise, she said the frequency she was being seen by doctors should have raised concerns.

“It was mind-blowing they would just trust what my parents said,” Corey said. “When I was being trafficked, they (medical professionals) weren’t even addressing domestic violence – so no one even had a word for trafficking, no one was even looking for it.”

It wasn’t until Corey had severe pelvic pain during a sleepover that red flags were raised. A neighbor took Corey to the emergency room after being unable to contact her parents.

Doctors alerted child protective services officials, who placed Corey in foster care in Northern Virginia.

“Foster care was so bad – I was getting raped in foster care – that I rescinded my story so that I could go back home,” Corey said. “I literally preferred my home to the foster care environment.”

In 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that one out of six runaways might be children sex traffic victims and that the vast majority of those runaways had been in foster care or social services care.

Foster credited the work of Chelmow and others in drawing attention to the victimization of children by traffickers. Ten years ago, she said, the problem and strategies to fight it were “totally off the radar.” There is more awareness overall, she said, with information being placed in “schools, hospitals, airports, at bus stations – critical points people are being trafficked.”

The role of the federal government, at the same time, has helped reshape the fight against trafficking, Foster said, as has the view that “the trafficked person is a victim and not part of the problem.”

Still, many problems remain, especially among higher-risk populations – minors in the foster care or social services systems; the homeless, young people with a history of running away; and LGBTQ youth.

LGBTQ youth “are already so marginalized, and it’s all about exploiting vulnerability,” Chelmow said. “Being marginalized makes you even more vulnerable.”

Despite the wide variety of backgrounds from which young people can be trafficked, Corey said, there are common elements in identifying the abused.

“I work as a life coach all over the world, and it’s almost scary how everybody, regardless of how similar experiences are, reacts to trauma the same way,” Corey said. “We really have to get away from the idea that trafficking is in a silo because it’s not.”

Authorities investigating human trafficking should be ready to consider issues ranging from emotional abuse to financial problems, she said.

According to Foster, among the signs that medical professionals can look for is the presence of someone who is not related to the person seeking help but who acts as if they are – for example, “someone who is like an uncle but won’t really act or look like an uncle.”

Other signs include anxious behavior from a patient, the inability to speak for themselves, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Foster said practitioners should also be aware of excuses used to justify physical trauma and the possibility that any overdoses were done with the intent to commit suicide.

Some of these problems may also be seen by teachers, Corey said.

“I know, we already ask our teachers to do a lot, but they are the first responders to spotting this because they see the children every day,” Corey said. “Another solution is asking survivors what they need and what other survivors need, because we know our experience and solutions need to be trauma-informed.”

However, Corey is aware that finding survivors who are willing to speak out can be difficult due to threats to their safety from their abusers.

“Another reason they don’t come forward is that people who are trafficked have been manipulated into thinking this is their choice and it’s their fault, and they don’t know what trafficking is or what its definition is,” Corey said. “Another side of it, and this is true for me, is that they disassociate and repress the memories.”

A major part of Corey’s work as a life coach and running her website beatingtrauma.com revolves around addressing how trauma manifests through memory loss. She left home at 18, but it was not until the birth of her children in her 30s that she remembered the trafficking and other forms of physical and sexual abuse she experienced.

“There were years of me going to Christmases and events with my family before I remembered the abuse,” Corey said. “I remember always feeling angry around them and like something was not right and I couldn’t name exactly what it was, but my children reminded me of what had happened. A lot of times, children will remind survivors of their own trauma.”

Corey is no longer in contact with her family. She said avoiding the generational cycle of abuse is difficult, but possible.

“I believe that anyone who abuses their children was also abused as a child, but that does not mean every person who was abused will then go on to abuse their own children,” Corey said. “There is a process to deal with the trauma and to address it.”

Virginia Governor Declares April as Women and Girls’ Wellness Month

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Eating disorders, stress, alcoholism, addiction and depression are leading medical problems affecting women and girls, but they are often forgotten because of the way breast cancer and intimate partner violence are highlighted with dedicated months.

Miriam Bender, chair of the group Women’s Health Virginia, commends the efforts of what she calls the “disease organizations.” But Bender said there is a need to raise awareness about the overall well-being of women and girls. So more than 15 years ago, Bender helped establish April as Women and Girls’ Wellness Month.

“A lot of days and weeks and months celebrate awareness of diseases, and a lot of issues don’t get highlighted in those individualized months,” Bender said. “They always focus on disease prevention or a problem instead of talking more positively about wellness.”

In July 2002, Bender and other activists pitched Women and Girls’ Wellness Month to 50 health organizations, women’s organizations and other groups.

“It was overwhelmingly positively received,” Bender said. “It was in July, and I thought who was going to show up in the middle of July – and the room was full.”

On Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam, like his predecessors, signed a proclamation recognizing April as Women and Girls’ Wellness Month.

“It’s an important day and month,” Northam said at a ceremony at the MathScience Innovation Center in Richmond. “We have declared the entire month of April so that we can recognize the important contributions girls and women make to our commonwealth and to help you all keep healthy and get a good education and a good job.”

The ceremony was attended by fifth- through eighth-grade female students from the MathScience Innovation Center. Northam encouraged them to get involved, pointing to the pay gap and the lack of women in health care, policy and STEM-related fields.

“That’s why all the girls and the women need to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough – I want to be equal to everyone else,’” Northam said.

Bender said that once people and organizations bought into the idea of Women and Girls’ Wellness Month., they decided it would best be celebrated in April.

“We wanted to do it at a time when organizations who served women and girls could do something. And if it’s too close to the end of the school year, girls’ groups and university groups wouldn’t be involved,” Bender said.

The MathScience Innovation Center was chosen as the location of the proclamation signing to encourage young girls to enter STEM fields.

“We know that health and wellness are tied to the physical attributes of the body, but they’re also tied to the wellness of the spirit and the soul and how we persevere, overcome adversity and how we deal with trauma,” said Hollee Freeman, executive director at the center.

The governor was joined Thursday by Virginia first lady Pam Northam, Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond and Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson.

Expanding Medicaid Will Aid Schools, Governor Says

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner are urging the General Assembly to expand Medicaid, saying such a move would free up money to help schools.

On Thursday, the two Democrats sat down with more than 20 teachers, faculty and parents from Richmond Public Schools and surrounding counties to discuss how this would work.

Last week, Northam introduced a new state budget proposal that includes Medicaid expansion and takes a slightly different approach to spending that could shape the debate when lawmakers return for an April 11 special session.

The special session was called because legislators couldn’t reach an agreement on the budget during their regular session. The House of Delegates wants to expand Medicaid, the health-care program for low-income Americans. The Senate opposes that idea.

Because the House’s Medicaid expansion plan would be funded with federal dollars and a new tax on hospitals, budget writers had more money to spend on public education and other services. The Virginia Education Association estimates the House budget allocated $169 million more to K-12 schools than the Senate version.

“We have had the opportunity since January 2014 to expand Medicaid, to give approximately 400,000 working Virginians access to quality and affordable health care,” Northam said at Thursday’s meeting at Albert Hill Middle School. “Morally, it’s the right thing to do in Virginia. No individual, no family, should be one illness away from being financially alive.”

The House version of the budget would increase state aid to $5,617 per student next year and $5,690 in 2020. In the Senate version, state aid per pupil would be $5,583 in fiscal year 2019 and $5,589 in 2020.

“It’s budget time in Virginia, and we, the General Assembly, did work in a bipartisan way,” Northam said. “All of this happened because of folks coming from both sides of the aisle. The most important bill we haven't finished this year is our budget.”

Warner said the commonwealth faces same challenges he encountered as governor in 2002-06.

“Gov. Northam has inherited a challenge that has been around for the last six or seven years,” Warner said. “That is the question of when we talk about education, we also have to talk about health care.”

People at the meeting pointed to numerous funding issues in education, including outdated resources, dilapidated school buildings and overcrowded classrooms. They also said schools don’t have enough full-time staff members such as guidance counselors and nurses,

Northam asked teachers who had full-time nurses at their school to raise their hands. He then asked teachers who did not have full-time nurses. The response was split 50-50.

Rodney Robinson, a social studies teacher at the Virgie Binford Education Center, said the lack of guidance counselors and nurses caused some schools to lose accreditation.

“Instead of just being a teacher, we’re now being a social worker, the counselor,” Robinson said. “If we can get those (guidance counselors and nurses) back in the school systems, I can guarantee you’ll see more teachers in those harder-staffed schools because there is less work burden on them.”

Melinda Lawson, an eighth-grade English teacher at Albert Hill, echoed Robinson’s frustration.

“For Richmond, we have a very difficult time creating 21st-century learners when we don’t have the resources to do so,” Lawson said. “I’ve been in this building for 14 years, and I’ve worn many hats in this time. We’re always trying to get there, and everyone else seems to be where we’re not, and we’re aspiring to get there.”

Northam said “providing a world-class education” is a priority for his administration.

“There is power in every child, and we need to make sure every child in Virginia reaches their maximum potential,” he said.

Panelists Discuss Future of Transgender and Nonbinary People

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Zakia McKensey began her male-to-female transition more than 20 years ago. She said she had to travel over 500 miles to Atlanta, Georgia, to find a plastic surgeon willing to perform her sexual reassignment surgery.

“I had to go to Baltimore for hormone therapy,” McKensey said. “There were not any medical providers in Richmond doing that work.”

Now, McKensey works as a certified HIV test counselor and prevention educator and founded the Nationz Foundation, a Richmond organization that provides education and information related to HIV prevention, cancer awareness and overall health and wellness.

McKensey joined a panel of experts at Virginia Commonwealth University on Wednesday night to discuss how public policy in immigration, health care, criminal justice and emergency management impacts transgender and nonbinary individuals -- people who don’t identify as male or female.

“It’s a huge part of who I am,” said Austin Higgs, a panelist who identifies as genderqueer, meaning neither entirely male nor female.

Higgs, who works as a community engagement officer and special assistant to the president and CEO at Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, said, “It’s been a long journey for me, and I am actually proud of who I am. I want the world around me to recognize who I am.”

Higgs and McKensey were joined on the panel by Shabab Mirza, a research assistant at the LGBT Center for American Progress, and Liz Coston, an instructor in VCU’s Department of Sociology.

Nearly 200 students and other community members attended the event, which was organized by Peter Jenkins, a doctoral student at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Jenkins moderated the event with Khudai Tanveer, an organizing fellow at the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.

Jenkins said that people tend to think the transgender community is small but that 12 percent of the millennial population is openly transgender, according to a 2017 report by GLAAD, which promotes understanding and acceptance of LGBT people.

During the discussion, panelists pointed to the problems of proper documentation and refugee placement for transgender and nonbinary people entering the United States. They said that documentation is problematic in many respects.

“For many years, I have questioned why there is any gender on any documentation,” McKensey said. “Does it really matter if I’m male or female to drive a car? I would like to see no gender on any documentation. I don’t think it really matters, as long as it’s you on the ID.”

To provide better healthcare for transgender and nonbinary people, McKensey said it starts with three steps: training, education and conversation.

"Our medical providers are not informed -- not all of them,” she said. “I also think it’s important to build a network, knowing who those affirming doctors are that our community can go to.”

On the topic of incarceration, panelists said that for transgender and nonbinary people, time in the criminal justice system is often more difficult because of their gender/sex/gender expression -- and even more so for people of color.

Some of the challenges they listed include physical violence (specifically sexual assault), wrongful placement in prison based on presumed gender, and denial of access to hormone replacement therapy, appropriate counseling and proper garments.

Higgs ended the panel by saying it is not only cisgender people — individuals who identify with the gender corresponds with their birth sex — who discriminate against transgender and nonbinary individuals. Even members of the LGBTQ community sometimes need sensitivity training as well.

“We have to admit that there is a problem within the community,” Higgs said, citing discrimination on the basis of skin color. “I think a lot of people outside of our community are surprised that this happens. It’s hard to kind of admit those problems when we’re just trying to survive and get the rights we should already have.”

TERMINOLOGY

Genderqueer — A term used by individuals who identify as neither entirely male nor female, identify as a combination of both, or who present in a non-gendered way.

Nonbinary — A term used to describe people who do not identify as a male/man or female/woman.

Sex reassignment surgery — A doctor-supervised surgical intervention. Itis only one part of transitioning from one sex to another. Not all trans people choose to, or can afford to, undergo medical surgeries.

Transgender — A term for those whose gender identity or expression is different than that typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.

Transition — A complex process to alter one’s birth sex that occurs over a period of time. It can include some or all of the following personal, medical and legal steps: telling one’s family, friends and coworkers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing differently; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly one or more types of surgery.

Hockey Player Has Chance for Own ‘Miracle on Ice’

Garrett Roe (Photo courtesy of Team USA)

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

When the NHL closed the door on its players competing in the Winter Olympics, it opened a door for Virginia native Garrett Roe to represent the U.S. on the men’s ice hockey team in the sport’s biggest international event.

In April, the NHL announced that it would not participate in the Winter Games in South Korea. “The overwhelming majority of our clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players,” the league said.

So the U.S. hockey team turned to Americans who weren’t playing for the NHL – like Roe, a 5-foot-9 center for the team EV Zug in the Swiss national hockey league. Roe, who is from the Northern Virginia town of Vienna, is the team’s leading scorer.

In December, Roe woke up in his apartment in Zug to a missed phone call from USA Hockey general manager Jim Johnson. Johnson was prepared to ask Roe to do something many top athletes can only dream of – to represent his country in the Olympics.

Roe and Johnson eventually connected – and that’s how Roe now finds himself in South Korea ready to face off against players from Russia in the U.S. team’s first game on Feb. 17.

Roe was born into a hockey family. His father, Larry, played and coached hockey; his two older brothers played the sport, too.

“When we first started coaching him, you could tell he had that extra little sense for the game,” Larry Roe told The Washington Post. “Some players have a sense for the game. Some players are talented. Some players have both, and that’s Garrett.”

After high school, Roe played for the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League, the country’s top junior ice hockey league. Then he attended and played NCAA hockey for St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. When he graduated in 2011, he was the school’s all-time leader in assists and third all-time in points scored.

After college, Roe played for the Adirondack Phantoms in the American Hockey League, which serves as the primary developmental league for the NHL.

Two years later, Roe signed with EC Salzburg of the Austrian elite league EBEL for the 2013-14 campaign. Since then, he has played for pro teams in Germany, Sweden and now Switzerland.

Looking back, Roe, now 29, wonders if his decision to abandon the American minor leagues and play overseas was rash. It effectively ended any chance he had of making the NHL, his boyhood dream.

“If I could do it all over again, I’d probably make a different decision,” Roe said in an interview withThe Washington Times. “I’d try to stay at home and try to better myself and believe in myself.”

In his biography on the national team’s website, Roe said his favorite moment in USA Hockey history is the “TJ Oshie shootout and the Miracle on Ice.” At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, Oshie scored on a penalty shot after overtime as the Americans beat the Russian team, 3-2.

Next week, Team USA will face the Russians again. Roe has high hopes.

“I like the team we have; I think we have a lot of blue-collar-type guys,” he told radio station WTOP. We’re going to be a team that’s extremely hard to play against and hopefully extremely hard to beat. That’s the goal.”

Experts Call for More Resources in Fighting Opioid Epidemic

By Sophia Belletti , Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- An average of 19 people a week overdosed on opioids in Richmond last year, and government agencies and other entities have responded to the crisis in a variety of ways, from dispensing overdose reversal drugs to arresting addicts.

Academic and law-enforcement experts discussed the problem and possible solutions Tuesday in a panel discussion titled "The Opioid Epidemic: Impact on Communities" at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It is our problem, and it is our responsibility,” said Kate Howell, an assistant professor at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

“Addiction is not new,” Howell said. “What is new is the drugs are more powerful and affordable than they were in the past and easier to get.”

Amy Cook, also an assistant professor in the Wilder School, said there are three approaches to combating the epidemic:

  • Expansion of community-based services

  • Recovery housing

  • Needle exchange programs

In 2017, the Virginia General Assembly legalized needle exchange services -- but no program has been implemented in the commonwealth.

Cook said needle exchanges recognize the multidimensional factors needed to treat addiction. However, she said, there is not a “one size fits all” approach.

“Were looking at a variety of treatment approaches -- community-based, sociological issues, biological issues,” Cook said. “The key part is, you have to be able to address it all and monitor it all -- and when it’s not monitored, that’s where we drop the ball.”

Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard said he uses an “arrest them all” strategy when it comes to preventing overdoses.

“There is no other program for them to get the help they need,” Leonard said. “At least arresting and bringing them in, they’re alive.”  

Leonard said he doesn’t want to arrest addicts, but said the resources they need aren’t accessible in most communities. Through the “arrest them all” strategy, Leonard allows addicts to get off the street and sober.

“In 37 years, I never saw any drug as harmful, as plentiful, as cheap as heroin,” he said. “As a state, we’re failing."

The leading causes of unnatural death in Virginia from 2007 to 2013 were motor vehicle collisions, gun-related deaths and fatal drug overdoses. In 2013, fatal drug overdoses became the leading cause, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

First responders who work with the Richmond Ambulance Authority have seen a spike in the number of opioid overdose patients in recent years. They estimate using about  1,000 doses of the overdose revival drug Naloxone to save people’s lives last year.

In November 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared opioid addiction a public health emergency in Virginia.

The opioid crisis has affected people not only in cities but also in suburban and rural areas, especially in Appalachia. That has made the problem hard to ignore.

“It wasn’t a crisis until it hit a group of communities we can’t ignore,” Howell said. ”Once it hit our suburban communities, they called it a problem. It sets up this dichotomy where we expect a certain kind of people. Now it’s different; we say, ‘Oh no, we have to do something.’”

Year After Ruling, 1 in 6 Drivers Still Has Suspended License

Manassas resident Greg Ballou was charged with a misdemeanor when he was 19. As a result, Ballou, 28, has had his driver's license suspended for nine years. (Photo courtesy of Greg Ballou)

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Manassas resident Greg Ballou was charged with a misdemeanor for possession of marijuana when he was 19, and he didn’t have enough money to pay the fine. As a result, his driver’s license was suspended.

Nine years later, Ballou, now 28 and working in construction, is thousands of dollars in debt, and his license has been permanently suspended.

“Everything’s a barrier, and it’s incredibly impossible to have a life at all without a license,” Ballou said.

Under Virginia law, when somebody is convicted of violating state or federal law and does not immediately pay the fine, the court suspends the defendant’s driver’s license.

After he lost his license, Ballou said, life went “all downhill.”

“What’s the point?” he asked. “I couldn’t find a job to keep me out of trouble, and from there, I was bored and had no money.”

Ballou is one of more than 15 percent of Virginia drivers whose licenses have been suspended due to court debt, according to a report released last week by the Legal Aid Justice Center.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Last year, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked the General Assembly to discard the automatic suspension plan, but legislators rejected his request. Last February, though, the Virginia Supreme Court required all courts to offer all defendants unable to pay court fines within 30 days deferred or installment plans before automatically suspending their license.

Now Republican Sen. William Stanley Jr. from Franklin County is pushing SB 181 to eliminate such license suspensions.

It would repeal “the requirement that the driver’s license of a person convicted of any violation of the law who fails or refuses to provide for immediate payment of fines or costs be suspended. The bill provides that the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles shall return or reinstate any person’s driver’s license that was suspended solely for nonpayment of fines or costs.”

Stanley said he was seeing a lot of people lose their licenses – not because of driving violations but because they weren’t able to pay their fines.

“And because of that, it was threatening their ability to work, take their kids to school or [travel for medical reasons], and they were getting arrested basically for trying to survive,” he said.

Ballou said he has no choice but to be flexible in his line of work. He said he purposely designs his life to be able to walk to work and care for his family.

“You really have to battle up hills,” Ballou said. “How the hell am I going to get to work? How the hell am I going to actually get a job that’s worth going to work for? How are you going to do all this without a license?”

The Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit group that provides legal services for low-income Virginians, reported that as of December, there were 974,349 suspended licenses in the state due at least in part to court debt. Almost two-thirds of the suspensions were solely for court debt.

“What we can do is ramp up our collection efforts on these fines rather than continually hurting people who can’t drive and lose their job, and the next thing you know, they’re not going to be able to pay those fines,” Stanley said. “We’re perpetuating a cycle of nonpayment instead of encouraging payment or seeking payment.”

The number of Virginians with suspended licenses due to court debt has not changed much in the past year despite the Supreme Court’s order. In September 2016, there were 977,891 suspended licenses in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

“It appears that these reforms have done little, if anything, to stem the breathtaking current of Virginians losing their licenses,” the justice center’s report said. It said that from November 2016 to last October, an average of 835 more driver’s licenses were suspended each day due to court debt.

Tangier Island Recovers From Icy Grip

By Sophia Belletti and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As temperatures on the Chesapeake Bay dropped as low as 9 degrees early this month, a barricade of ice up to 10 inches thick formed around Tangier Island, preventing boats from bringing groceries, medicine and other supplies to the 722 residents on that speck of Virginia off the Eastern Shore.

Fortunately,  a variety of agencies came to the rescue —  the U.S Coast Guard out of Maryland, the Virginia National Guard and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources organized emergency ice-breaking operations to free Tangier Island.

Nearly two weeks after the snowstorm, regular activity on the waters around Tangier resumed Wednesday, and the mail delivery ferry went out to Tangier’s residents for the first time Thursday morning.

“We’re happy to help with what is really life-saving work,” said Gregg Bortz, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Tangier is located in the Chesapeake Bay and consists of three villages — Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point. The island depends on boats for mail and shipments, and single-digit temperatures and thick ice made that impossible.

Tangier Island falls within the Coast Guard’s 5th District, which includes Maryland and Virginia.

“The Coast Guard has a history of providing assistance to Tangier,”  said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges. “The organizations that responded to Tangier Island were based on the availability of assets with ice-breaking capabilities.”

Then the Virginia National Guard flew in from Richmond, making two trips to deliver additional food.

Island officials sought assistance from the Coast Guard, which sent the cutter Chock on Jan. 3. The ship conducted ice breaking and supply delivery until Jan. 5, Hodges said.

“The Chock had to be redirected to break ice in another area, and second request was submitted to the Coast Guard by Tangier for assistance,” Hodges said. “The Coast Guard was unable to facilitate the request, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management took over relief duties.”

According to Bortz, a 100-foot Maryland icebreaker, the J. Millard-Tawes, was brought in from Crisfield, Maryland, 13 1/2 miles from Tangier.

Clearing a path, he said, was “the primary goal.”

The Maryland DNR was called to the island last in 2015. Bortz said the U.S. Coast Guard primarily responds to Tangier while Maryland DNR focuses on helping nearby Smith Island, Maryland.

Capt. Eddie Somers of the J. Millard-Tawes was part of the rescue team that met trucks of supplies at the city docks in Crisfield and took the two-hour journey to Tangier.

Besides the Tawes, the Maryland DNR has three ice-breaking vessels -- the  John C. Widener in Annapolis, A.V. Sandusky in Kent Narrows and Big Lou on the Choptank River.

Tangier Mayor James Eskridge said the island hasn’t experienced ice like this in many  years. The community, he added, always pulls together.

“Some 40 years ago, folks would have bonfires and go ice skating,” he said. “This was the closest to an ice storm we’ve had since then.”

VCU edges Richmond in overtime in A10

By Zach Joachim and Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

PITTSBURGH – A well-rounded stat sheet, a dominant 14-6 overtime period and some timely senior leadership propelled VCU to its fifth consecutive Atlantic 10 championship finals after a heart-stopping 87-77 win over the University of Richmond.

VCU’s scoring depth lead the Black and Gold to victory – the Rams posted 35 bench points, compared to Richmond’s meager two. All five UR starters finished in double figures, while three of VCU’s starters reached the mark.

Senior guard JeQuan Lewis led the Rams in scoring with 18, followed closely by redshirt-freshman guard Samir Doughty (17), redshirt-senior forward Mo Alie-Cox (15) and junior forward Justin Tillman (11). Nine VCU players scored in the contest.

“We outrebounded them and scored 56 points in the paint,” said VCU coach Will Wade. “That’s our formula. We made some plays when we needed to.”

Richmond freshman guard De’Monte Buckingham was nothing short of sensational – he led all scorers with 26 and went 9-14 from the field.

The Rams found themselves in dire straits at the end of regulation. Richmond’s freshman guard Nick Sherod hit a corner-three with 25 seconds left to give the Spiders a 3-point lead.

When all seemed lost, Wade and the Rams looked to their senior leader and asked the world of him – and Lewis delivered.

The first-team all-conference guard rose up from the wing and tied the game after running a curl off a screen in the post. Junior guard Jonathan Williams fed him right in the shooting pocket on a play Wade said the Rams run frequently.

“I had shooting in my mind before the play even started,” Lewis said. “We practice that play a lot.”

On the final possession of regulation, Richmond senior guard ShawnDre’ Jones had a chance to give his Spiders the win. UR got the switch it wanted, with Alie-Cox matched up against Jones on the perimeter. The VCU senior forward showed off his versatility by forcing a fade-away, contested jump shot that went begging.

“A team that forces overtime wins 72 percent of the time,” Wade said. “They were going to have hit a crazy shot in regulation to beat us – and they didn’t.”

“Mo helps us so much defensively. How many other fives can switch off defensively onto a guard and just bottle him up and make him shoot an 18 foot, contested fade-away jump shot? He’s a freak of nature – that’s why he’s going to be playing in the NFL, or whatever he’s going to do.”

Freshman guard Samir Doughty, who was recently relegated to a six-man role after starting for much of the season, was a catalyst for the Black and Gold. Doughty’s ability to get to the rim was key for a VCU team that – according to Wade – settled for too many jump shots in the second half.

“We took so many pull-up jumpers in the second half, I was so mad,” Wade said. “Samir’s instinct is to put his head down and drive the ball. We needed that mentality today.”

Lewis agreed. “Samir is a great player and scorer. We need that from him. He’s scrappy.”

The VCU Rams will face the University of Rhode Island Rams on Sunday in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship. Tip-off is scheduled for 12:30 on CBS. The last time the Rams played each other, Rhode Island out muscled VCU and won by a final of 69-59 up north. RI did not visit the Siegel Center this year.

“It’s going to be up and down. It’s going to be physical,” Lewis said. “We have good guards; they have good guards. We have good post players; they have good post players.”

“They obliterated us on the glass,” Wade said. “We weren’t strong in the paint. They’re the one team in the league that’s as physical as we are.”

One thing is for certain: By Sunday afternoon, a team named the Rams will be the 2017 Atlantic 10 tournament champions.

VCU beats George Mason in A10 tournament

By Zach Joachim and Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

PITTSBURGH – In his third game back following a foot injury, freshman guard De’Riante Jenkins led the VCU Rams with 15 points to knock George Mason University out of the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals, 71-60, Friday evening.

“It’s really nice to have De’Riante back,” said VCU coach Will Wade. “He was tremendous.”

PPG Paints Arena felt a lot like a home game at the Siegel Center Friday night, as RamNation traveled in superb fashion. At least 3,000 VCU supporters made their voices heard in the Steel City.

Following nine ties and 10 lead changes, VCU pulled away in the final six minutes of the game. Senior guards JeQuan Lewis and Doug Brooks fueled the late onslaught with a pair of three pointers each.

Lewis pointed to his team’s mindset as a cause for the late run.

“(We got) more aggressive,” Lewis said. “We were settling a lot for perimeter shots. We just ran plays to get us driving downhill.”

Lewis knocked down five shots in the second half en route to 13 points on the evening, following a dry spell for the Dixon, Tennessee, native. He also recorded six assists and three steals.

Redshirt-senior forward Mo Alie-Cox went 0-4 from the floor and junior forward Justin Tillman recorded seven points. The struggles down low rendered it pivotal for the guards to knock down outside shots. Alie-Cox did, however, did chip in a pair of vintage blocks, which came on consecutive possessions in the second half and fueled the late momentum shift.

VCU shot 57 percent from beyond the arc in the second half, largely thanks to Lewis (2-4), Brooks (2-3) and Jenkins (3-3).

The Black and Gold applied pressure early and often, attacking the Patriots in a full-court zone press for most of the night before dropping back into a half-court zone. The Rams forced 14 turnovers and created 20 points off the resulting opportunities.

“We talk about the last six minutes of the game a lot – we call it winning time,” said Wade, whose team finished second in the A10 regular season. The conference champion, Dayton, lost to Davidson in the A10 tournament earlier Friday.

“We executed down the stretch,” Wade said. “When we’re making threes like that, the scoreboard really adds up. They threw a bunch of junk defenses at us, and it took a second for us to adjust. But once we figured it out, our guys were tremendous. I’m really proud of all of them.”

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