Human trafficking is a growing problem across the country and it’s happening right here in West Virginia.
“There were several times I asked myself, how did I end up here?” Angie, who is a survivor of human sex trafficking, said. Her darkest years are now over. “I was very full of shame and embarrassment so I never told anyone.”
Angie grew up outside of Charleston and describes her childhood as upper-middle-class, but at a young age, she started hanging out with the wrong crowd.
“At 15, I ran away from home and had a much older boyfriend. He came and got me and that was the night I was sold for the very first time,” Angie said.
The next year, Angie moved to California and became trapped in the world of human trafficking. She was controlled physically and emotionally by men who watched her every move.
“If I didn’t do what I was told to do and didn’t bring in the quota I was supposed to bring in, there were threats of harming my family. Daily beatings.”
Angie and several others were trafficked dozens of times a day. She eventually moved back to West Virginia where she said the abuse continued.
“Sex trafficking is a problem in our state. Anywhere it’s occurring, it’s a problem so if the question is whether or not trafficking is occurring here- absolutely,” Dr. Patrick Kerr, who is a clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor at West Virginia University, said.
“They may be promised a job they think is legitimate such as a modeling or dancing job that doesn’t involve any commercial sexual exploitation. When in fact the person who intends to traffic that person is using that as a ruse to traffic that person,” Kerr said.
Dr. Kerr is also the Chairman of the West Virginia Human Trafficking Monitoring Committee. “We know human trafficking is happening here. What we can’t say is how often or prevalent it is, how many incidents happen in an entire year.”
That’s one of the reasons why the monitoring committee was formed. Over the past year, Dr. Kerr and several others have been working with local law enforcement, domestic violence shelters and health organizations to collect data on the growing problem.
“We expect to see forced prostitution as one of the most common types of sex trafficking,” Kerr said.
Another type that has become more common in the state, familial trafficking, where a family member sells a child for sex and it’s usually all for a quick fix.
“There seems to be a connection to drugs and human trafficking in our state,” Kerr said.
Angie said addiction and her vulnerability is what kept her trapped in the nightmare for so long.
“This isn’t a choice that people make. Nobody chooses to be put into sexual exploitation, nobody chooses to be put into prostitution,” Angie said.
She was eventually able to get help from a local church. Today, she shares her story to hundreds of people at forums across the state, hoping to motivate others to watch for signs.
“Never once through the years was I asked do you need help? Are you safe?” Angie said. “Reach out. That first step is always the hardest.”
There are several options for treatment. If someone is in immediate danger, call 911. A trafficking survivor can also contact the national human trafficking hotline by calling 1-888-373-7888.
There are places survivors can stay, such as domestic violence shelters, which can provide the proper help and resources. Executive Director of the Women’s Resource Center in Raleigh County, Patricia Bailey, stresses the importance of being aware of your surroundings and knowing the signs.
“It’s not uncommon for people to talk about their person situations. And while I am sure they are discouraged to talk about their person situations, sometimes something comes out. If you’re not prepared to hear that and know what it means, you could miss something. That could be a cry for help,” Bailey said.
So what are the signs of human trafficking? Click here.