MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – According to experts, human trafficking is a prevalent problem in West Virginia that is need of solutions.
Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The number of cases reported in the state was 40 last year, according to National Human Trafficking Hotline. However, Andrew Cogar the assistant US attorney out of Northern District of West Virginia said that number is higher.
“For example, in Clarksburg from a women’s center there, we know there’s dozens more human trafficking victims that are identified there alone each year,” Cogar said. “So we know 40 cases in the state is a low number, we do think it is a prevalent problem but it’s hard for us to accurately assess the scope.”
Victims, Cogar said, can be men or women, but when it comes to sex trafficking, it is predominantly, and unfortunately, women who are more at risk. He said women are forced into working at massage parlors, truck stops, strip clubs and that many of them are active on social media.
“The traffickers are exploiting some vulnerability, it might be poverty, it might be drug addiction, it might be the fact that they’re runaway or homeless,” Cogar said. “And they’re using that vulnerability as a pressure point to compel them to do something they may ordinarily not do.”
He said the most common form of human trafficking is domestic work, where people are forced to work in unsafe and illegal conditions for little to no pay. Cogar said one of the reasons for high rates of human trafficking in West Virginia could be due to the fact that all bordering states have high rates of trafficking and some of that could be seeping into the state.
“I think the statistics bear out that West Virginia is uniquely vulnerable to trafficking because all of our border states are among the highest in trafficking incidents in the country,” Cogar said. “Ohio is number four, for example, Kentucky, which has a similar culture and demographics that we do, they’re 21st as well and Maryland and Pennsylvania all in the top 20 of incidents and prevalence of human trafficking.”
At the same time, Cogar said he has in fact heard reports from law enforcement that trafficking victims are showing up in other states who are originally from West Virginia.
Another factor, Cogar said, that is heavily influencing the state is the amount of transient people. By this he means people who are not from here, who do not live here or come for work. As examples he gave sales people and oil and gas workers, from out of state, to name a few.
Cogar said oil and gas workers specifically have increased the amount of sex trafficking. He said the levels at which these workers are are creating more sex trafficking are hard to gauge but he knows there is a problem.
“I’ve seen signs that the oil and gas industry, with the influx of young men from out of state, who don’t have connections to the community that it created a market for prostitution,” Cogar said. “And by no means, is it a bash against the industry or the workers, it’s just human nature to some degree that’s being exploited and there’s been, we know for a fact, that prostitution is advertised more as a result of that and where’s there’s more prostitution there’s a market for human trafficking or sex trafficking specifically.”
Cogar said oil and gas workers are paid very well and they’re often very young and or they’re away from family and friends and they have a lot of free time and they’re living out of hotel rooms, all factors which make hiring a sex worker more probable.
As far as fixing the problem goes, he said he has co-founded and co-chaired the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force that meets at least twice a year in different locations around the state. He said he encourages people to visit the taskforce’s website to learn about human trafficking issues and ways of combatting it, one of which he said was to get in touch with his office.
“The taskforce, more generally, is a place and a context for a multidisciplinary group of people: service providers, law enforcement personnel, victim advocates well-meaning citizens, healthcare professionals,” Cogar said. “We can evaluate the issue, talk about how to raise awareness, talk about how to proactively combat the problem, initiate investigations and just as importantly and more importantly, serve those victims and help make victims whole.”
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of any kind of human trafficking or you want to learn more you can reach Cogar’s office at 304 623-7030 or you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888) 373-7888.