W. Va. faces statewide challenges in combating human trafficking

W. Va. — When it comes to combating the problem of human trafficking in West Virginia, officials say there are challenges to face statewide.

Assistant US Attorney General Andy Cogar, co-chair of the West Virginia Human Trafficking Taskforce, said one of the challenges, not unique to West Virginia, is the learning curve for law enforcement in dealing with sex trafficking.

“This is the learning curve we have with law enforcement, not just with law enforcement,” he said. “It’s important with law enforcement because they are on the front lines, but it’s also a cultural learning curve that we have to go through when it comes to sex trafficking when it comes to our perceptions and our paradigms.”

“When it comes to sex trafficking, they have that understanding of sex trafficking. They blur those lines between sex trafficking and prostitution, and so there is a tendency— because culturally, it’s not just a law enforcement thing, but culturally, prostitutes are written off as almost subhuman at times.There’s a lack of concern or credibility that’s ascribed to sex trafficking victims because they are written off often times as just lowly prostitutes.”

“We have to break through that and have a much more nuanced understanding of what prostitution is frankly. But also, and more importantly, the various ways that sex trafficking can manifest itself or that it is manifested.”

Cogar said part of the learning curve is because human trafficking is a relatively new crime in the codes.

“Another thing with law enforcement — another learning curve we have to get over — is the fact that human trafficking has only been codified as law for about two decades,” he said. “So, it’s not common nature, or it’s not second nature I should say, for police officers to look at a situation, like they would with assault or domestic violence, certain white collar crimes and so on—it’s not second nature for them to say, ‘Oh, that looks like human trafficking.”

“Instead, they might say it looks like child abuse. It looks like prostitution. That looks like a labor violation. It looks like anything else but human trafficking. What I want to do, as part of the task force, is to sensitize law enforcement to pause and see that, to have the screening tool internally to recognize the possibility of human trafficking as such.”

Police Officer Troy Ball of the Morgantown Police Department said he agreed education is important for law enforcement on this issue.

“Sometimes police are not the best resource for survivors. Sometimes advocates are the best resource,” Ball said. “It’s really situational. I’d like for them to contact the police and seek help from the police, but we are limited as to laws, and not every police officer has a really good grasp, a tremendous understanding of the nature of domestic violence. And that can make it difficult and that can make the response difficult and not necessarily favorable.”

Ball said there was a lot of information to learn about human trafficking as a crime.

“We just have a lot of work to do in that area,” he said. “[Education] is important for everyone in the community. Law enforcement for sure. I know we receive a lot  now, and some may argue with me that we’ve received enough, but I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s still more…Because there’s a lot of information. There’s a ton.”

Cogar said another challenge in West Virginia, can be the relationship of local law enforcement and small communities.

“Because of that culture and that very close relationship, which is good in many ways, between law enforcement and local communities, there will be, and I think there has been in some areas, a propensity to rationalize or overlook certain signs of trafficking and saying in response, ‘That’s just the Smith family being the Smith family’ or ‘They’ve always done that,’” he said.

Cogar said this relationship can unintentionally correspond with a significant familial trafficking problem in West Virginia.

“I think many law enforcement, myself included, see familial-based sex trafficking as maybe the most prominent form of sex trafficking in the state based on antidotal evidence and trends we have seen,” he said. “So, that’s a deeply concerning issue for us in the law enforcement community and the task force because there’s very little opportunities for intervention. There’s very few opportunities for accountability because, and we’ve seen this nationally in these egregious examples of parents imprisoning their children.”

“We’ve heard about this in California and elsewhere in recent months, and some of that has gone on for years before it’s ever detected. It really makes it that much more imperative for law enforcement to be that much more attuned to the possibility of human trafficking in these family situations, and taking advantage of these opportunities to say, ‘Hi, I was in the neighborhood. How are your kids doing? I haven’t seen Joey in a long time. How’s he doing today?’”

Cogar said these types of conversations are “part of common sense policing that could go a long way toward preventing, discouraging and then intervening in these kind of familial-based human trafficking situations.”

Cogar said it’s a lot to ask of local law enforcement to deal with human trafficking on top of their other duties.

“The local enforcement, sheriff’s deputies, they are on the front line, and we ask a lot of them to identify things in the early stages or to alert the state or federal law enforcement about burgeoning issues in their communities,” he said. “Human trafficking is just one other thing. And it’s tough, and frankly it’s tough for them because human trafficking is a different kind of crime and because it’s not necessarily as intuitive or straight-forward to identify, and it requires a bit of nuanced training, frankly. I think it’s tough for them to keep that straight. To have that kind of screening that’s built in internally, so they can say, ‘oh that’s human trafficking.’”

Cogar said as part of the West Virginia Human Trafficking Taskforce, he hopes to educate law enforcement officials and help them develop the screening they need to recognize human trafficking.

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