You’re a lot closer to human trafficking than you realize. In fact, it’s happening in the Eastern Panhandle. Right now.
Katie Spriggs remembers the first time she sheltered a sex-trafficked victim at the Shenandoah Women’s Center in Martinsburg—or rather, the first time she knew that the woman seeking refuge had been trafficked.
It was 2013, and Spriggs’ shelter received a call from Polaris, a nonprofit resource center that runs a national hotline for victims of human trafficking. A woman had texted the hotline desperate for help. For years, her trafficker had rotated her between Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Richmond, and Martinsburg, selling her to multiple men each day, and moving on to the next leg of the circuit each week. She knew she would be at a hotel in Martinsburg the next day, and somehow had discovered the Polaris hotline. Polaris called Spriggs: Could her shelter take the woman in? Spriggs could, and arranged a cab to pick the victim up. And so the woman told her trafficker she was stepping out of the room to get some ice—intent on making her escape.
The cab went to the wrong hotel.
The victim frantically waited outside the hotel for the cab to appear, knowing that her excuse to her trafficker was wearing thin. She texted again and again. Spriggs contacted the driver and directed him to the right hotel. The woman arrived at the Center safely.
“I was expecting her to be European or Middle-Eastern, eighteen and a half years old, a hundred and five pounds,” said Spriggs. “But she was average weight, average height—a thirty-three-year-old American, born and raised.
That’s what many of us assume—that human trafficking occurs far away, in troubled countries somewhere else. Or if it does happen here, it involves foreigners who’ve been tricked into slavery as a way to get into the country (which does happen sometimes). But even more often, it involves everyday Americans who, through force, fraud, or coercion, are trapped into performing work or commercial sex for years, often isolated from their families, with their identities stripped and their money taken.
It’s Happening All Around Us
“This is in every zip code in America,” said Rita Nieman, a former German teacher living in Shepherdstown. “But Americans are terribly good at showing a blind eye to it.” Nieman first learned about human trafficking through her church in Pittsburgh eight years ago, and felt compelled to do something. She’s been part of a growing grassroots effort to raise awareness in recent years.
“I’m sure that we’ve always been seeing victims of sex trafficking at the shelter,” said Spriggs—program manager there since 2012. “But we’re just now identifying it, and we’re just now getting the word out that we do serve these victims, so that other professionals who identify the signs can refer victims to us.”
Globally, human trafficking generates $150 billion each year from the forced labor of 21 million people, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization. Two-thirds of that comes from commercial exploitation for sex. The remainder involves forced labor in domestic work, agriculture, fisheries, and other sectors. An estimated 1.5 million of those victims live in North America and other developed countries. But Nieman doesn’t like numbers. For one thing, it’s hard to get good figures on how many people actually are trafficked. For another “… it takes away the person,” she said. “These are real human beings.” Humans such as Elizabeth (a pseudonym).
Elizabeth was a 26-year-old college student when she fell for a charismatic guy at a ski resort and married him 40 days later. Eventually, he convinced her to work in erotic massage as a way to earn extra money. Between 1998 and 2001, she worked for a pimp at locations throughout Washington D.C., spending up to an hour with each customer—businessmen, military men, political people—in apartment buildings or other nondescript locations.
“People can hide [this behavior] in the shadows while going about their business,” she said. Elizabeth came from an educated middle-class family, but had been sexually molested twice as a child. She didn’t recognize how manipulative her husband was until it was too late.
Young teens are particularly vulnerable, especially runaways, those in abusive homes, or those with low self-esteem. Traffickers can befriend them—increasingly online—pretending to care, lavishing them with attention and gifts (at first), and becoming their (usually older) “boyfriend.” Once they’ve gained trust, they’ll push for sex, or for victims to pose for racy photos, or to have sex with friends. Traffickers can then use shame and fear, or get victims hooked on drugs—to keep them enslaved—forcing them to have sex for cash and threatening to share their shame, or harm others, if they leave. In other cases, traffickers insert themselves into a community, gain trust, and then traffic kids from loving homes while on trips away. And not all victims are female, although the numbers get even sketchier for males. “Males are often very reticent to report,” according to Nieman.
(Click here for a comprehensive list of trafficking signs to look out for)
More Needs to Be Done
Greater awareness has led to better laws. According to Polaris, in 2012, West Virginia became the 49th state to make sex trafficking illegal. But it has a long way to go. In West Virginia, a trafficker is considered a criminal only if he or she traffics more than one person, leaving a big loophole for those exploiting a single individual. A bill in the most recent legislative session would have fixed that, but stalled. Advocates are pushing the Governor to include it in a special session being held later this year to resolve the state’s budget impasse.
Even then, law enforcement needs to learn how to identify trafficking victims, so they can provide assistance rather than pursue prosecution. After learning about trafficking from local activists, Shepherd University Police Chief, John McAvoy, requested training from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and opened it up to all County law enforcement. “The most important thing officers walked away with were the telltale signs of trafficking,” he said.
Overall, Polaris gives West Virginia its lowest ranking for victim assistance laws. That includes failing to support victim services such as counseling, job assistance, or housing. And failing to grant minors full immunity from prosecution for crimes they might have committed while enslaved—immunity that would direct them to child welfare services instead of juvenile delinquency proceedings.
West Virginia law also fails to address one of the most basic tools of all: encouraging public posting of a human trafficking hotline. A study for the U.S. Department of Justice found that posting a hotline is the single most important factor for increasing the number of trafficking arrests. It also found that states with a human trafficking task force—to examine and address the problem comprehensively—have the highest rates of prosecution. West Virginia doesn’t have a task force.
For now, that means in the Eastern Panhandle, the 15-bed Shenandoah Women’s Center is the only shelter that takes in victims of trafficking. Between victims of trafficking, domestic violence, and other sexual assault, the Center often fills up. In those cases, Spriggs tries to refer victims to shelters in other communities, or find local hotel rooms—a cost of about 100 dollars a night.
Victims can stay at the Center as long as they need to, and recovery time can be longer for victims of sex trafficking than for others. “Transportation is a huge, huge issue,” said Spriggs. Stripped of their identity for years, trafficking victims need to reapply for licenses and birth certificates, attend medical appointments, and get to job interviews or work. “I wish we had a shelter vehicle,” she said.
Most victims remain at the Center for around six to eight weeks, and then move on. In some cases, that means to recovery houses—private homes often run by people of faith who provide a healing environment and access to resources to help victims. Others reunite with their family.
That’s what happened to the first trafficking victim Spriggs helped. After two weeks at the Center, she returned to her family in another state, far from her trafficker. The last time Spriggs heard from her, she was starting a new job, and hopefully a new life.
Amy Mathews Amos is a regular contributor to The Observer. She covers the environment, history, health, and culture. Follow her at @AmyMatAm.