CHARLESTON – When many hear the phrase “human trafficking,” they may think of people from abroad being smuggled into this country to work.
However, this heinous crime also takes place within the United States, and can happen right here in the Mountain State, where all too often difficulties in victim identification causes human trafficking to go unreported or underreported.
This must change.
I believe increased reporting will arise from greater awareness of this issue by West Virginia citizens and at all levels of government.
Defined as modern-day slavery involving the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act, human trafficking is the second most profitable criminal enterprise behind drug trafficking. Millions of men, women and children are trafficked each year, bringing in billions for those who harm others for their own gain.
Victims of human trafficking may be sold or recruited into labor or commercial sex.
Law enforcement officers agree the serious drug abuse epidemic heightens the threat of human trafficking in West Virginia. This provides an environment in which human trafficking can thrive given the need of opioid addicts to supply their habit without means of financial support.
Sadly enough, victims may not be recruited at all, but sold into labor or sex by families looking to fund a drug addiction.
The digital age increases the risk and potential for traffickers to recruit youth online, making their criminal activity sound like a legitimate job offer. A young woman may be contacted by someone saying she is attractive. She may be asked to join their so-called modeling agency. The trafficker may ask her to send photos of herself, usually explicit, and then threaten to leak the photos if she seeks a way out.
Traffickers will also recruit at schools, using a popular student to influence his or her peers. They typically target girls 12 to 14 years old and boys ages 11 to 13.
This heartbreaking reality means everyone must be on the lookout for telltale signs common amongst victims of human trafficking; that includes parents, teachers and other mentors or guardians.
There could be a sudden change in the victim’s behavior or attire. Victims may stop attending school altogether or run away from home. Tattoos can be a common way traffickers brand their property and may incorporate gang insignia.
Government also plays an important role and my office is committed to rescuing victims of this heinous crime.
This year, my office created a set of guidelines aimed at raising awareness of human trafficking. The initiative received support from more than six law enforcement agencies across the state, as well as the Cabell County prosecuting attorney.
My office also works closely with law enforcement and child protective services across the state to host intensive training on how to identify and counteract human trafficking. This equips law enforcement officers and others with valuable information and fulfills continuing education requirements. These training seminars have taken place in Bluefield, Charleston, Fairmont, Logan, Martinsburg, Oak Hill and Whitehall with plans for more in Cabell, Raleigh and Wood counties as well as other areas of the state.
Additionally, we have joined a coalition of 50 state and territorial attorneys general in urging Congress to amend the Communications Decency Act, a law created to protect children from explicit content online. Those on the front lines of the battle against the sexual exploitation of children – state and local law enforcement – must have clearly-defined power to investigate and prosecute facilitators of these atrocious crimes.
Human trafficking reduces people to property, forces victims into dangerous situations and may go undetected due to victims’ distrust of authority or willingness to protect their trafficker out of fear.
We must work together, watch for indicators of human trafficking and speak up when things seem out of place. Together, we will protect vulnerable members of our population and help West Virginia reach her full potential.
Morrisey is Attorney General of West Virginia.