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Girls & Women

Sex Trafficking Is on the Rise in West Virginia Due to This Growing Problem

One of the most frightening consequences of the US opioid epidemic is unfolding in West Virginia, where some parents have traded their own daughters for money to feed their heroin dependence, West Virginia Public Radio reported Wednesday.

The persistent sex trafficking has gone unrecognized in West Virginia communities until activists and law enforcement agents began speaking out in 2017.

“Most of what I see is familial trafficking, which is where the parents tend to prostitute their children out,” Department of Homeland Security task force leader Brian Morris told West Virginia Public Radio. “The reason that they do that is we are increasingly facing a drug epidemic in this state.”

Take Action: Tell World Leaders to Redouble Their Efforts By Amending Laws to Prevent Sexual Violence

The opioid crisis has spared few communities in the US, where more than 2 million people are addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers. More than 236 million opioid pills were distributed in the US in 2016 — down from 282 million in 2012— and rural areas have seen a huge increase in the number of overdose deaths over the past 15 years.

Individuals experiencing opioid addiction often turn to heroin as a cheaper and more easily available form of the drug. The need to ingest the drug and avoid excruciating withdrawal symptoms can compel people to engage in otherwise unimaginable behaviors, like sex work or sex trafficking.

Though the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported only nine cases of human trafficking in West Virginia in 2017, analysts say those numbers will increase as more people learn to recognize and confront this form of exploitation.

In some cases, however, sex trafficking has gone unreported because the victims did not realize they were being abused in exchange for money.

For example, the director of a community service and mental health treatment center told West Virginia Public Radio that some girls and women who revealed that they were confined in basements or raped at gunpoint thought they were in a relationship with their abuser. In those cases, they did not know the men had paid their parents.

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Worldwide, about 25 million people were victims of human trafficking in 2017,  including nearly 5 million who experienced some form of sex trafficking, Human Rights First reported.

Despite those startling estimates, the identification of victims and prosecution of perpetrators remain low around the world. In the US, for example, about 4,500 cases of human trafficking were reported in 2017 and only 439 traffickers were convicted in 2016.

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The reports of sex trafficking fueled by the opioid abuse crisis come as West Virginia and states throughout the US have designated January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.  

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey said the state would better enable local police and community members to identify victims of sex trafficking and intervene in cases of suspected abuse, an initiative the state launched in June 2017.

“West Virginians are especially vulnerable to human trafficking because of the opioid epidemic, poverty and a large number of children in foster care,” Morrisey told WVNS TV. “A person’s freedom should never be compromised.