CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal law enforcement officials met with stakeholders Tuesday at the University of Charleston to discuss ways to combat human trafficking in West Virginia.
The event was hosted by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Will Thompson.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Rada Herrald said during a presentation West Virginia sees a lot of human trafficking, particularly of children, due to the state’s high poverty levels.
“Food and housing insecurity can make someone very vulnerable to traffickers who can promise to give them those supplies. They can feed them, they can give them a home, they can give them nice clothing,” Herrald said.
Special Agent Brian Morris with Homeland Security Investigations joined Herrald during the presentation and said an adult trafficker will manipulate a child to make them feel loved and supported.
“There’s no such thing as a child prostitute,” Morris said. “Either we’ve got sexual abuse, we’ve got something going on in the home or they’re running towards somebody that is giving them something.”
Many children who are trafficked for sex, money, drugs or other reasons don’t view themselves as victims, Morris said. The child is manipulated so much that, in some cases, the victim will call their trafficker their boyfriend or husband.
“I’ve done hundreds of interviews over my career and probably 25 percent of that they do so say ‘hey, listen that’s my man and he’s done nothing wrong to me.’ Usually they don’t want to prosecute, but without a victim, we don’t have a case most of the time,” Morris said.
According to data provided by Thorn.org, about 75 percent of minors trafficked after 2004 were advertised online including sites like Facebook and Craigslist.
The role of technology in trafficking has grown over the years, according to the statistics. Of those first trafficked in 2015, about 55 percent met their trafficker via text, website or app. Half of survivors said their trafficker was a stranger and that they met online.
Herrald said some children who are trafficked will post their own ads.
“Even if they put their own ad on Craigslist, every single person who tries to engage in commercial sex can be convicted of federal sex trafficking and we pursue those cases very aggressively,” she said. “The child has not committed a crime in that scenario, but every single adult who has been involved with her has.”
Herrald and Morris also went over warning signs for teachers, counselors and other adults to look out for. Morris advised peope to look out for strange tattoos on a child.
“They’re going to brand their property,” Morris said of traffickers who belong to gangs.
Other warning sings include a child who has multiple cell phones, frequent school absences, abrupt changes in behavior, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.