Human Trafficking is widely defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, providing, or obtaining of a person for a commercial sex or labor services act, in which a commercial sex act or labor service is induced by force, fraud, or coercion” (Trafficking Victims Protection Act-TVPA). Let’s break that definition down. There are two main types of trafficking: labor and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking, in practice, looks like farm work with little to no pay and unhealthy living conditions or a false promise of a grand job in a far-away land, only for the applicant to arrive and be exploited. Sex trafficking, in practice, would be a husband selling his wife for drugs or a pimp exploiting the need for love in a 14-year-old girl and selling her to “Johns” (purchasers of sex) within the community.
Unfortunately, this heinous act is occurring in communities like ours across the country. Shenandoah Women’s Center (SWC), the only licensed victim service provider in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, reported that it saw more than 80 victims of human trafficking in 2017. Out of those 80, 78 were born in the U.S., and most of them are from the Eastern Panhandle. The most common forms of trafficking throughout the I-81 corridor are familial trafficking and intimate partner trafficking. Familial trafficking involves a family member or guardian selling his or her child/family member for sex or labor services to profit. Intimate partner trafficking is a similar situation, with an intimate partner trafficking his or her partner for profit.
Katie Spriggs, Executive Director at SWC, tells the story of a victim SWC served within the last few years: “She presented to us as a victim of sexual assault, but the more we heard, the more we suspected she was being trafficked. She was 19 years old when we met her, but had been trafficked by her boyfriend for more than 3 years. She met him through friends when she was 15, and he was 25. She came from a home with two successful parents and self-identified as someone who had a loving family. He took time to groom her (grooming defined in WV Code as “predatory act” means an act directed at a stranger or at a person with whom a relationship has been established or promoted for the primary purpose of victimization). He showered her with attention and love and convinced her that she was destined for more than what this small community had to offer. He told her, in order for them to get out of here, she needed to help him earn money. He convinced her that a quick way to make money was to perform sexual acts. She resisted at first, clearly uncomfortable, but she believed he loved her and would never intentionally hurt her, so she agreed. Eventually, the purchasers (Johns) became violent, causing her to seek medical attention. After many years, she was able to leave her trafficker and seek help. Spriggs continued: “Trafficking is a very complicated victimization; it involves long-term manipulation and exploitation. It is not often a victim tied down in a basement. We are walking among victims of human trafficking in our daily lives; they just may not identify as such.”
In a study done on the commercial sex trafficking economy in eight U.S. cities, researchers found that the average trafficker (pimp: person providing the victims) profits $32,000 per week. It is because of this economy that human trafficking thrives. It is considered a low risk, high reward endeavor. “We have to come together as a community and decide that we will work to prevent, protect and prosecute” says Spriggs. “Prevent this from happening by early intervention, community awareness and bystander intervention. Protect victims by training our first responders to recognize human trafficking and use trauma-informed care. Prosecute by relentlessly seeking justice against those who sell and purchase, while providing protections for victims.”
The Eastern Panhandle community has been very active in fighting this injustice head on. Multiple task forces exist throughout the panhandle, as well as representation on the statewide Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. Over the past few years, groups have held multiple awareness campaigns, while also strongly supporting the work done by SWC in providing financial support and goods for victims. Advocates throughout the panhandle work with legislators to pass legislation that will benefit survivors, including a human trafficking bill last year that substantially improved protections for victims and punishments for violators.
You’ve heard the saying, “It takes a village.” This is true for the fight to end trafficking. When asked how we can help, Spriggs replied: “Just do whatever you do well, for them. If you are an attorney, offer a few hours of pro bono work for victims each month. If you’re an excellent fundraiser, host an event to raise funds to help victims relocate. We can all do something to better their experience.” For more information on how you can support or get help for someone locally, call SWC (see below).
Begin to educate yourself (on the signs of Human Trafficking) at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “The Blue Campaign” Website. As you see something that just doesn’t seem right-even if you are unsure-don’t dismiss it. Be the one that makes the call. You could be saving a person’s life. Call 911 if you perceive immediate danger to the individual, or make an anonymous call to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Hope that you are wrong, but call, and let the experts make the decision if what you are seeing needs follow up. If you can do it safely, take pictures of what you are observing, but never personally try to intervene. This could put both the victim and you in danger.
Should you be being trafficked, don’t believe the lies you have been told. You are not alone, and there is help for you!