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Human trafficking hits close to home in West Virginia

Human trafficking hits close to home in West Virginia

Mar. 21, 2021

By Mary Wade Burnside

West Virginians who hear about the practice of human trafficking might think of it as something that only occurs in foreign countries. Or maybe larger states, such as Florida and California.

Katie Spriggs has firsthand knowledge that human trafficking is definitely is taking place in the Mountain State.

“Human trafficking is obviously happening here,” said Spriggs, the executive director of the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center in Martinsburg. 

Just the name of her organization offers proof of the acknowledgement of human trafficking in the state. From 1977 until 2018, the EPEC was called the Shenandoah’s Women’s Center, having been launched as a domestic violence shelter that took on new duties as the years went by.

“We added sexual assault in the 1980s, and then stalking and dating violence victims,” she said.

The EPEC worked its first human trafficking case in 2012. Another factor in the name change is that “we serve all genders, and it was hard to say that when “women’ was in the name,” Spriggs said.

Spriggs recently addressed the topic of human trafficking on a Zoom presentation for the Monongalia County Quick Response Team (QRT), along with Andrew Cogar, an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of West Virginia, who prosecutes federal cases of human trafficking.

Cogar previously discussed the topic in late 2019 to the Monongalia County QRT, a collaboration among first responders, public health, peer recovery coaches (PRCs) and other health care and private partners dedicated to providing immediate and longer-term help to those struggling with substance abuse. Funded by grants awarded to MCHD, the QRT meets weekly to discuss strategies for getting treatment and services to individuals who need it.

“It’s good for everyone, including members of the QRT, to be on the lookout for situations that involve human trafficking,” said Brittany Irick, coordinator of the Monongalia County QRT. “That’s especially true for us, because substance misuse and addiction is one method for traffickers to keep their victims dependent on them.”

The two most common types of trafficking are sexual trafficking and labor trafficking, and sometimes those overlap, Spriggs noted.

In an interview after her presentation, Spriggs outlined the three types of human trafficking that are most common in West Virginia.

These are familial, intimate partner and survival.

Familial is exactly what it sounds like, she added. “It’s commonly children, a mom or dad selling the child to a neighbor down the street for $300. The neighbor could be taking pornographic photos, could be selling the child out themselves, abusing the child.”

Parents who do this are often living in poverty and it’s also not uncommon for substance use disorder to be involved as well.

“West Virginia has recognized that we are at high risk for familial trafficking,” Spriggs said. The state code was updated in 2017 with guidelines for West Virginia Child Protective Services to screen for human trafficking. “They gave CPS the authority to intervene,” Spriggs added.

Intimate trafficking also is pretty straightforward. It’s when someone forces a partner into sexual or labor trafficking, maybe to a landlord to pay the rent. Someone who does this might have groomed the partner from the beginning. Spriggs provided the example of a woman who struggled to fit in who met a much older man when she was in her 20s.

“All it takes for them to get in is to say, ‘I would never hurt you, I will provide for you.’ It annoys me that people understand that children will fall for that but not adults. The want and need for love and safety and comfort do not go away.”

As for survival trafficking, that can happen with someone like a runaway, maybe someone who has been kicked out by parents for being gay. After living on the streets for a while, an individual is more apt to be taken advantage of in exchange for food, shelter and/or money.

The Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center helped 70 human trafficking victims in 2014. Now that number has risen to 100-200 annually. Spriggs is not sure if it’s because instances are going up or if it’s just being recognized more often.

“We are gathering data,” she said. “We want to be able to answer that in the future.”

Individuals who might think they know of a human trafficking situation can report it to the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. More information can be found at polarisproject.org or https://humantraffickinghotline.org.

Mary Wade Burnside is the public information officer for Monongalia County Health Department.

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