#WearBlueDay highlights human trafficking in US, WV

January 11, 2019

HUNTINGTON - Citizens are being encouraged to wear blue Friday, Jan. 11, in an effort to bring awareness to human trafficking, which state officials say is on the rise in West Virginia.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. #WearBlueDay, which is held Jan. 11, is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign meant to raise public awareness about human trafficking, while also training law enforcement and others to increase detection and investigation of the crime.

It is estimated there are nearly 25 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, with more than 8,500 cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2018. In 2018, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations made 1,588 human trafficking arrests - 1,543 of which were related to sex trafficking - while identifying 308 victims. They also made over 4,000 criminal arrests for human smuggling violations.

According to 2017 National Human Trafficking Hotline statistics, 17 trafficking victims were identified in West Virginia, as well as 13 traffickers and three trafficking businesses. In 16 cases, nine were sex-related, two were sex- and labor-related, two were labor and three were not specified.

West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center Director Jessica Griffith, with the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said human trafficking is on the rise in West Virginia and is still highly under-reported.

Human trafficking is defined as compelling a person to engage in commercial sex or forced, unfair labor. A sex trafficker is someone who profits from someone participating in sexual acts in exchange for anything of value.

Most of what West Virginia sees is familial trafficking and trafficking involving sex, Griffith said.

“A lot of times we are seeing with the opioid epidemic these individuals are trying to afford their habit,” she said. “So they are maybe selling their significant other or family member, like a child, for sex in return for money or drugs.”

Several seminars were held throughout the state in 2018 to train hotel workers, various law enforcement agencies and others on the crime of human trafficking and how to better identify those situations.

According to the U.S. Human Rights Commission, signs a person may be trafficked include controlled movement, usages of false identity, not knowing their home or work address, having no access to their earnings, long work hours, limited to no social interaction, limited contact with family and more.

A victim may not even understand they are being trafficked, Griffith said.

“A lot of times their traffickers use power and control,” she said. “They are really using these techniques to brainwash the individual to fear the trafficker or law enforcement. In familial trafficking we can see that sometimes it’s a cultural thing. It can be generational, and the family members don’t know any different that it is a crime or that they are (used in) a crime.”

Several efforts have been made to help combat trafficking recently.

This week, President Donald Trump signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to tighten criteria for whether countries are meeting standards for eliminating trafficking. In December, he signed the Abolish Human Trafficking Act to strengthen survivor programs and resources for combating modern slavery.

He has also signed the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act, authorizing $430 million to fight sex and labor trafficking. He also signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which established new prevention, prosecution and collaboration initiatives to prosecute traffickers.

In 2015, the Human Trafficking Task Force was established in West Virginia with a multipronged approach. The mission of the task force is to proactively combat labor and sex trafficking and serve trafficking victims through collaboration.

The collaboration includes law enforcement, medical professionals, victim advocates and more. Several subcommittees within the task force help narrow different tracks.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached to report trafficking or seek information by calling 888-373-7888 or texting “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733. Citizens can also seek assistance through stophumantraffickingwv.org.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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