Editorial Author, MaryWade Triplett, News

Human trafficking a problem, even in West Virginia

Before the dust has settled on the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who died in jail after being accused of sexually trafficking girls, an eerily similar story emerged from Florida. This time, it’s centered on a man who launched a nonprofit to purportedly help children in the foster care system but was actually grooming them to be prostitutes.

Foster children, along with runaways, are two very vulnerable groups when it comes to falling victim to sexual trafficking, noted Andrew Cogar, an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of West Virginia who prosecutes federal cases of human trafficking.

Any number of reports of human trafficking in the United States is too high. A total of 10,949 — the number of reported humans caught up in trafficking schemes in 2018 — is especially alarming when you consider these figures tripled since 2012. Also, 7,126 were female; 1,137 were male. The remaining 2,686 were not identified by gender.

Back in 2012, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 3,409 cases were reported. The number has risen steadily in recent years, especially since 2016: 2013, 5,176; 2014, 5,382; 2015, 5,714; 2016, 7,748; 2017, 8,773; and 2018, 10,949.

Are those figures rising because the actual numbers of cases are going up or because more awareness led to more instances of human trafficking coming to light?

It’s probably some of both, said Cogar, who also co-founded and co-chairs the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force.

Cogar recently presented a lecture on human trafficking to Monongalia County Health Department’s Quick Response Team. The QRT is a group of MCHD employees, law enforcement, first responders, peer recovery coaches and other community stakeholders meeting weekly to address the opioid crisis.

The lecture also was attended by MCHD employees, because their work puts them in contact with groups of people who could be among the most vulnerable in our community, so it was good for them to learn signs to watch for that someone might need help.

Cogar noted, in the United States, trafficking people for sex is more prominent than for labor, while internationally, it’s the reverse.

The West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force said, “Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against his/her will.

“Sex trafficking has been found in a wide variety of venues within the sex industry, including residential brothels, escort services, fake massage businesses, strip clubs and street prostitution.

“Labor trafficking has been found in diverse labor settings, including domestic work, small businesses, large farms and factories.”

In the U.S., risk factors include restricted freedom of movement, a sexually explicit online profile, indebtedness to an employer, unusual tattoos that could be branding, large quantities of cash and having several cell phones.

Cogar said someone who has been trafficked might not really know it.

“They don’t always realize they are victims,” he said. “And they might be conditioned not to cooperate if someone tries to help them.”

About 50% of people who were trafficked for sexual services were first trafficked as minors. “There are instances of children as young as 8 or 9 being trafficked with alarming frequency,” he added.

In 2018, of the nearly 11,000 cases of human trafficking reported in the U.S., 40 of them took place in West Virginia. However, Cogar said, that figure “undercounts significantly” what’s really happening in the state.

Cogar showed ads from now-defunct web services of purported Russian females offering massages in towns all over West Virginia. He said ads like these have been replaced by websites with much more explicit offers.

There are other human trafficking scenarios: Restaurants that bring foreigners to work for them for long hours and low wages, promising to help them get a Green Card in six months. That never happens, and then there might be blackmail involved with threats of calling immigration services if the victims don’t continue to work under illegal circumstances.

Another way to ensnare someone into a trafficking situation is looking on the internet for vulnerable people, such as runaways and foster children. Many times, it’s an older man who preys on a girl.

Do you know of a situation in which there might be human trafficking involved? If so, Cogar urges you to report it. Contact the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or Cogar at andy.cogar@usdoj.gov.

You also can check out the Polaris Project and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Contact Mary Wade Triplett at 304-598-5152 or at MaryWade.Triplett@wv.gov. Contact MCHD at 304-598-5100 and find out more about MCHD at monchd.org, on Facebook and Twitter @wvmchd and on Instagram at #wvmchd.