August 08, 2019
As most of us are aware, human trafficking is on the rise in West Virginia and appears to have a direct correlation to the opioid epidemic. It has become one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world and continues to grow. In West Virginia, although still underreported, more cases are appearing of families trafficking their own children for drugs and money.
In 2017, according to the Polaris Project, there were 16 cases of human trafficking in West Virginia that involved 10,615 individual victims; nearly 5,000 potential traffickers and 1,698 trafficking businesses. Human trafficking in the Mountain State is notoriously underreported and alarmingly on the rise. Fortunately, there are taskforces, churches, and networks of organizations in WV joining together to address this problem.
The West Virginia Human Trafficking Taskforce, co-chaired by the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Southern and Northern districts of West Virginia, is developing methods to obtain more accurate reporting numbers and centralized data on the human trafficking rates and trends, while other organizations, have begun the initial planning stages for coordinating a network of safe houses and training programs that will help community members recognize and report trafficking suspicions.
“Sex trafficking generally appears to be the more common type of human trafficking within the state, and that is driven by two different factors—the opioid crisis and the increase in the number of children in foster care,” says Mike Stuart, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of W.Va.
I currently serve on the executive team for an organization in Charleston, tasked with addressing how its members and the organization can assist with the community’s trafficking problem. I have been assisting government officials in the country of Moldova for the last seven years, address and assist victims of sex and labor trafficking. The problem is the very real threat that volunteers and those trying to help trafficking victims have with organized crime and those whose financial interests are perpetuated by trafficking. Even in the hills of West Virginia, the opioid crisis has resulted in the perfect trafficking storm: 1) Networks of organized crime and 2) children left alone and vulnerable to trafficking via connections with the addicted family members or predators on the Internet.
As organizations begin to focus their resources on assisting trafficking victims, Legal Aid will undoubtedly play an important role in advocacy, victim representation, and community outreach. Right now, the most important part of working on trafficking issues is discretion. Those trying to coordinate and organize to address this issue must work with a certain amount of anonymity in order to protect themselves and the victims. If you are interested in helping the state address policy and reporting needs, I encourage to visit https://stophumantraffickingwv.org/about-us/ , U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Southern and Northern districts of West Virginia. If you are concerned or believe you know someone who may be a victim, please reach out to the following organizations:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
WV State Police Missing Children Clearinghouse: 1-800-352-0927
WV Abuse and Neglect Hotline: 1-800-352-6513
WV Fusion Center: 1-866-WVWATCH