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W.Va. Officials Warn Of Increased Cases Of Human Trafficking


The opioid crisis is causing some horrifying side effects. We're going to hear about one of them now. And a warning - this story is disturbing and may not be appropriate for younger listeners. The story is from West Virginia, where there's been a rise in sex trafficking, including crimes where the perpetrators and the victims are members of the same family. As Kara Lofton of West Virginia Public Radio reports, spotting this problem can be tough.

KARA LOFTON, BYLINE: Brian Morris says all forms of human trafficking, whether for labor or sex, are severely underreported in West Virginia. He's with the Department of Homeland Security, and he's co-chairing a state task force that's trying to figure out how common human trafficking is.

BRIAN MORRIS: Most of what I see is familial trafficking, which is where the parents tend to prostitute their children out. And the reason that they do that is we are increasingly facing a drug epidemic in this state.

LOFTON: Morris says human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Other members of the task force caution it's difficult to know how prevalent human trafficking is because local law enforcement is just beginning to know how to recognize it. But Crittenton Services, a residential treatment facility for girls ages 12 to 18, knows those signs all too well. Nine of the 30 girls living here now have a history of being sexually tracked by family members. Laura Smith is a clinical therapist at Crittenton.

LAURA SMITH: We have had young women who eventually, when they are able to tell us their stories, tell us stories of being in basements and having guns held to their head while they were having sex. And they're very aware that that's not what is supposed to be happening.

LOFTON: Smith says, a lot of times, the girls are not viewing this as something their family has done to them. In some cases, the young women develop a kind of relationship with their abusers, so they view a much older man as a boyfriend or person that they love.

SMITH: And sex is just a manifestation of that love. So in those cases, they don't understand mom or dad is getting money on the side from that relationship, too. That part is kind of hidden usually when the girls feel like they're in a relationship with those individuals.

LOFTON: Smith says some young women arrive at Crittenton and not realize they've been trafficked.

SMITH: And then it becomes a question of if we tell them that that's what's happened to them, is that further damaging their trauma and damaging what they've grown up with and those safety nets that they have? Or is it going to be useful to them in the long run to move on from it?

LOFTON: At the Huntington Police Department, Bob Leslie, a deputy with the West Virginia attorney general's office is leading a training for police officers on how to spot human trafficking. He says it's likely far more common than they realize.

BOB LESLIE: We know that trafficking is the second largest criminal activity in the United States and in the world. Anybody want to hazard a guess as to what is the number one criminal activity in the United States? Somebody say heroin, or somebody say drugs.

LOFTON: Leslie said last year, the task force trained nearly 3,000 people in West Virginia on how to spot human trafficking. Agent Brian Morris says the hope is that if people know what human trafficking looks like, West Virginia's reporting numbers and federal cases will also increase.

MORRIS: This is a human life that we are referring to. And if you don't stand up to protect these children, there's nobody else that's going to stand up to protect the kids.

LOFTON: But standing up for kids can be a bit of an uphill battle. In order to build a case, prosecutors need victims to testify which is especially difficult when the perpetrator is a family member. So prevention is key. And prevention here, in part, means getting a grip on the opioid crisis. For NPR News, I'm Kara Lofton in Charleston, W.Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.