Eric Douglas Published

Human Traffickers Prey On Family, Children

An woman sitting on a bed in a room with light coming in from the window. The woman has her back to the camera. The image features an abuse concept with a blue tint to the color of the image.yupachingping/Adobe Stock

Editor’s Note: There is no explicit language in this reporting, but some of the topics may be difficult for some. This story is the first in a three-part series. The second story will cover law enforcement and prosecution. In the final story, we’ll hear more from a survivor about her experiences. 

Many of us have heard the phrase “human trafficking.” It may bring to mind people packed into a truck being shipped across the southern border or kidnapped and sent into sex slavery in another country. 

Not that those problems aren’t real, but human trafficking in West Virginia is different, according to a number of West Virginia law enforcement experts. 

“Human trafficking is the exploitation of an individual for the purpose of commercial sex or compelled labor,” Paula Yount, the programs and law enforcement training coordinator from the West Virginia Fusion Center, said. “You mentioned human smuggling, and a coyote bringing someone across the border. Human smuggling is a crime against a border where transportation is required. But human trafficking is a crime against a person and transportation is not required.”

The West Virginia Fusion Center is the state’s central clearinghouse for information on criminal activity. Yount’s job is to identify situations where human trafficking is suspected and to send that information along with local police. 

For Yount, the problem is many victims may not understand they are being used. 

“They may not realize that the situation that they’re in, again, through the use of force, fraud or coercion, that it is a situation of human trafficking,” she said. “They may not know who to seek out for help.” 

In 2021, there were 112 “signals” about human trafficking in West Virginia. Those can be phone calls, emails, chats or other contacts either from a person who is being trafficked or from a person reporting their suspicions, according to the West Virginia Report from the National Human Trafficking Hotline Data Report.

Jack Luikart, director of the Fusion Center, said human trafficking is one of the most under prosecuted crimes in the state. These crimes are often perpetrated by family members or other trusted individuals who “sell” people who are in difficult situations. 

In his 30 years in law enforcement, he said he never really heard about human trafficking until the last few years. 

It wasn’t even a topic of conversation among law enforcement,” he said. “I was never given any classes on human trafficking. I was never told how to recognize human trafficking. No prosecutor or anyone ever said we might have a human trafficking charge here, or I as an officer never thought about that side of things.”

One of Luikart’s goals through the Fusion Center is to take training and education to state agencies to make sure law enforcement doesn’t miss the opportunity to file those charges. 

I just think that as we educate, as we publicize the statewide initiative, the governor’s offices directs all state offices to put the brochures, the fliers out, the information will be posted in all rest areas, all welcome centers,” he said. 

Secretary of State Mac Warner is using his position as the licensing agency for all businesses in the state to create the West Virginia Businesses Against Trafficking program. Businesses are asked to post information and to be aware of customers who may be in trouble. 

For William Thompson, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, the problem is basic and troubling. 

A lot of what we see is as a direct result of what I call, you can call it the opioid epidemic, the drug epidemic, whatever it might be,” he said. “We see a lot of what family trafficking where family members are essentially selling young children into sexual acts in order to get some money, which is then usually spent on drugs.” 

Thompson said he does see labor trafficking, too. In some cases, it happens in disreputable rehab centers or halfway houses where people are living on the edge. 

“Some of them are taking advantage of the people who suffer from addiction, and essentially forcing them into labor,” Thompson said. “Whether it be panhandling, you know, we’ve seen when you go through a Walmart or somewhere close and you see people panhandling, usually that’s a form of human trafficking. They’ll transport them six, eight, ten hours away. Take their means of transportation, ID, communications and say you need to go out and do this for a number of hours, or you don’t get a ride home.” 

Whether for sex or for labor, people are preyed upon by others while they are at their most vulnerable. Often their support system is gone or they are isolated and there is no one to turn to. And then the trafficker tells them to do something or they will lose what little they have left. 

Often, it’s a family member or relative that is doing the trafficking. That was the case for Jane Doe. She is a survivor of human trafficking for sex. WVPB is not using her real name in an effort to protect her identity.

“They’ve taken three years of my life telling a story that wasn’t even true,” Doe said. “There were missing parts of it. And I just want to be able to fill the missing pieces with what actually happened.”

Doe’s trafficker, her stepmother, has been sentenced to prison. The man she was sold to for sex will be sentenced soon. And at that point, she said she looks forward to telling everyone her story. 

This story is the first in a three-part series on human trafficking in West Virginia. The second story will cover law enforcement and prosecution. In the final story, we’ll hear more from Jane Doe about her experiences. 

Human Trafficking Resources:

If you or a loved one is the victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, text 233733 or dial 911.