West Virginia’s drug epidemic may be leading to increases in what’s called “familial sex trafficking.” Family members trading sex with a child in their family for drugs or money. But spotting the problem and prosecuting the offenders is very difficult.
That’s because all forms of human trafficking, whether for labor or sex, are severely underreported in West Virginia, according to homeland security agent Brian Morris. Morris co-chairs a state task force that’s trying to figure out how common human trafficking is.
“Most of what I see is familial trafficking,” he said, “which is where the parents tend to prostitute their children out. And the reason that they do that is we are increasingly facing a drug epidemic in this state.”
Morris said human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. But that definition only applies for adults.
“There is no such thing as a child prostitute,” he explained. In other words, underage children cannot consent to sell their bodies for either sex or labor. When a child’s body is being sold, it’s abuse and rape, period.
Part of the problem with understanding the prevalence of human trafficking is because local law enforcement is just beginning to know how to recognize it.
But Crittenton Services - a residential treatment facility for girls aged 12-18 - knows those signs all too well. Nine of the 30 girls living there now have a history of being sexually trafficked by family members.
“We have had young women who, eventually, when they are able to tell us their stories, tell us stories of being in basements and having guns held to their head while they’re having sex and they’re obviously very aware that’s not what’s supposed to be happening,” said Laura Smith, a clinical therapist at Crittenton.
Smith said a lot of times the girls are not viewing this as something their family has done to them. In some cases, the young women develop a kind of relationship with their abusers so they view a much older man as a boyfriend or person that they love.
“And sex is just a manifestation of that love,” she said, “so in those cases they don’t understand that mom or dad is getting money on the side from that relationship, too. That part is kind of hidden usually when the girls feel like they are in a relationship with those individuals.”
Smith said some young women arrive at Crittenton and don't realize they’ve been trafficked.
“And then it becomes a question of, if we tell them that's what’s happened to them, is that further damaging their trauma and damaging what they’ve grown up with and the safety nets they have? Or is it going to be useful to them in the long run to move on from it?”
At the Huntington Police Department, Bob Leslie, a deputy with the West Virginia Attorney General’s office, recently led a training for police officers on how to spot human trafficking. He said it’s likely far more common than they realize.
“We know that trafficking is the second largest criminal activity in the United States and in the world," Leslie said. "Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what is the number one criminal activity in the United States? ...Someone say heroin, or someone say drugs.”
Leslie said last year, the Task Force trained nearly 3,000 people in West Virginia on how to spot human trafficking. Agent Brian Morris said the hope is that, if people know what human trafficking looks like, West Virginia’s reporting numbers and federal cases will also increase.
“This is a human life that we are referring to. And if you don’t stand up to protect these children, no one else is going to stand up to protect these kids,” Morris said.
But standing up for kids can be a bit of an uphill battle. In order to build a case, prosecutors need victims to testify, which is especially difficult when the perpetrator is a family member. So prevention is key. And prevention here, in part, means getting a grip on the opioid crisis.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.