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Human trafficking is a problem everywhere, even in West Virginia

Human trafficking is a problem everywhere, even in West Virginia

Dec. 18, 2019

By Mary Wade Burnside

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 has emerged from Florida. This time, it’s center on a man who launched a non-profit to purportedly help children in the foster care system who was actually grooming them to be prostitutes.

Foster children, along with runaways, are two very vulnerable groups when it comes to falling victim to sexually 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 how these figures have 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 has led to more instances of human trafficking being brought to light?
It’s probably some of both, said Cogar, who also co-founded and co-chairs the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force.

Recently, Cogar presented a lecture on human trafficking at Monongalia County Health Department’s Quick Response Team (QRT). The QRT is a group of MCHD employees, law enforcement, first responders, peer recovery coaches and other community stakeholders who meet weekly to address the opioid crisis. Obviously, drug users can be targeted for human trafficking; in other instances, traffickers purposely get their victims hooked on drugs to help control them more.

In addition to QRT members, the lecture also was attended by MCHD employees in MCHD Clinical Services, MCHD Dentistry and Women, Infants & Children. The work of those public health workers in particular 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 out for that someone might need help.

What are those signs? First, Cogar noted, in the United States, trafficking people for sex is more prominent than for labor, while internationally, it’s the reverse.

A definition of different types of trafficking can be found on the website for the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force:

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 United States, risk factors that might reveal that someone is being trafficked 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 several cell phones.Also, Cogar noted, someone who has been trafficked in this way 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.”

Just about everyone working in prostitution has been trafficked at some point, Cogar said, even those who end up working for themselves. “Nobody really wants to be a prostitute,” he added. And 50 percent of people who have been 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.

How close does that hit to home? Very close, noted Cogar. In 2018, of the nearly 11,000 cases of human trafficking reported in the United States, 40 of them took place in West Virginia. However, he said, that figure “undercounts significantly” what’s really happening in the Mountain State.

Cogar showed ads from now-defunct web services of purported Russian females offering massages in towns all over West Virginia. The ads create more questions than they answer, however. Are the females of legal age? Who placed the ad? Are they really from Russia? If so, who sponsored them in the United States? And why is one of them wearing a T-shirt that says “Sex” on it?

Sadly, Cogar said, ads like these have been replaced by websites with much more explicit offers these days. “This is child’s play compared to what’s being posted now,” he said.

There are other human trafficking scenarios: restaurants that bring foreigners to work for them for long hours and low wages, promising to help getting 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. At first, they pretend to care; then they will say something like, “If you really love me, you will make money for me.”

“That’s the way traffickers sink their teeth into their victims,” Cogar said.

And then they might take video of the girl engaged in sex and threaten to show it to friends and family. Or they might give victims drugs so they are so strung out, they are easily to manipulate. Or both.

Do you know of a situation in which there might be human trafficking involved? If so, Cogar urges you to report that. There are several ways you can do this, including by contacting the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or Cogar himself. His email address is andy.cogar@usdoj.gov.

Want to learn more? In addition to the above websites, you also can check out the Polaris Project and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Remember, it takes a village to take care of our fellow citizens, especially those who are among the most vulnerable in a community.

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

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