A Missouri congresswoman joined Rep. Dave Brat in Henrico County on Wednesday for a forum on efforts by elected officials, law enforcement and others to stop human trafficking.

Rep. Ann Wagner, a Missouri Republican, was the patron of legislation  President Donald Trump signed in April that weakened legal protections for online services that host sex-trafficking content. Before the bill was signed in April, federal law-enforcement officers had already arrested the co-founder of the website Backpage.com, which ran sex ads, and the site was shut down.

“She is the quarterback on this issue for the entire nation," Brat, R-7th, said of Wagner.

Brat said he already was interested in the issue after working with nurses and local law enforcement, so he helped gather support for Wagner's bill in the House. Because of Brat's support, Wagner said, she was honored to join him for a forum in his district.

Brat and Wagner were joined on a panel at Richmond Community Church in Glen Allen by Adam Lee, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Richmond division, and Rosalinda Rivera, the CEO and executive director of New Life for Youth, which assists women who were victimized by addiction and trafficking. Brat is seeking a third term in Congress in November, challenged by Democrat Abigail Spanberger.

A woman from South Carolina told the audience she was trafficked up and down Interstate 95 from Georgia to Virginia for years - with her photo posted to Backpage -  and was helped by New Life for Youth.

Wagner said the new law is prompting websites that offered sex services to shut down out of fear of prosecution.

“Dismantling America’s horrific, abusive, commercial sex industry is a serious uphill battle and that is why we need your help," she said. “Over the past few years I have been shocked to learn that many people do not believe in this fight.”

Lee said the abuse of prostitutes may not be readily apparent to someone paying for sex.

Someone paying for a prostitute at a truck stop, for example, wouldn't know that the woman is being extorted into the sex trade through threats directed at her family in her home country.

"Human trafficking is a very high priority issue for the FBI," he said.

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pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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