homepage logo

Sex trafficking in the Eastern Panhandle

By Staff | Feb 10, 2017

Women, men and children are sold for sex in all 50 states. Even West Virginia. Even in the Eastern Panhandle.

Katie Spriggs, program manager at the Shenandoah Women’s Center says they served about 50-60 sex trafficking victims in 2016.

“That is not a huge number given the number of people we help each year, but it’s growing,” said Spriggs. “And of course these are just the cases that we know about-that we were able to positively identify as trafficking. I’m sure there are many more that we don’t know about.”

She went on to explain a little more about sex trafficking based on the cases at the center.

“The most frequent type that we see is an intimate partner trafficking their intimate partner, husband trafficking wife, for rent money, drugs or housing. The second most common type of trafficking we see is a parent trafficking a child. We (Women’s Center) can’t shelter children under 18 without their parents unless they’re emancipated, so we’re seeing victims of child sex trafficking after they are older and they tell us that they’ve been trafficked by their parents. But every single person that I’ve ever talked to that works in a residential youth setting-whether that’s board of childcare or any of the agencies around here that shelter at-risk or runaway youth-have all said they have (child) victims of sex trafficking all the time.”

Domestic (in the U.S.) sex trafficking is still relatively under-studied. There is much more information about domestic violence, but initiatives over the last several years have helped educate and raise awareness.

Immense profitability with minimal risk of being caught is the reason trafficking continues to grow. It’s difficult to grasp the magnitude and scope of this expanding criminal economy.

The Urban Institute released the shocking results of a three-year landmark study in 2014 after researching seven major U.S. cities. Researchers interviewed pimps, traffickers, sex workers and child pornography offenders, as well as local and federal law enforcement officers. The average weekly profits for pimps in each city were staggering. Atlanta came in at the highest slot with an average weekly earning of $32,833. Atlanta was followed by Denver, Seattle, Miami, Dallas, D.C. and San Diego bringing up the rear with pimps making profits of $11,129 per week.

“Sex trafficking happens in every income bracket you can imagine-from people living on the street to pharmacists or any other professionals,” said Spriggs. “We definitely see more trafficking in the lower income, drug addicted, run away youth because those populations are more vulnerable.

“The first case that we ever knew as documented human trafficking was in 2012. Of course later we realized that we had been serving victims of trafficking for decades, but just now named it what it was. In that (first) case, the woman had texted into the National Human Trafficking Network and they called us. It was probably the biggest trafficking case that we’ve had because she could recall seeing dozens of other women that this guy and his partner were trafficking. This woman didn’t know what he did for a living, but she said he got dressed in a suit every day and went to work. While he was gone the woman who was the ‘bottom girl’ (woman who is most experienced and trusted) would prevent the other women from leaving.

“That woman, in her three years of being trafficked, had actually been picked up three times by law enforcement officers, but no one ever asked the right questions. People ask all the time, ‘why didn’t she just tell them?’ Of course there’s fear that he’ll kill her family, kill the friends that she’s met-they (the women being trafficked) become friends because they don’t have anybody else. He’ll take the few possessions that she has left. She has fear of not being believed.

“I’ve got to confess, after years of doing violence against women, violence against humanity work, I’m really tired of hearing the question, ‘why don’t they leave?’ I hope that one day we won’t have to explain ourselves is for now we keep doing it. Obviously there’s psychological trauma-especially if your parents have been trafficking you since you were four. That is going to lead to some lasting problems. Shame, emotional attachment, drug addiction. You can get someone to do just about anything when you get them dope sick.”

This makes a compelling argument for the broadening of the spotlight on opiods to include a connection to sex trafficking.

Spriggs said her ideal situation (other than the abolition of trafficking and abuse) is to have a human trafficking expert on staff, which would require a grant, but Spriggs said getting more money seems unlikely.

She also said doing some sort of all day training for law enforcement, nurses and social workers, with continuing education units available would be very beneficial.

“It would be great if there could be training credits attached and break out sessions where someone talks with the healthcare workers about what to look for; having a forensic nurse there to talk about specific injuries or evidence you can see on a victim of trafficking that might look different than a victim of sexual assault. Are there differences? Are they going to look the same? Session on talking to law enforcement about what can you charge a trafficker with now? Getting creative with how to get victims into a shelter. What if the shelter is full? Who can take the victim to a hotel? Can law enforcement drive them? Just working all that out on a larger scale-tri-county wide.”

The Shenandoah Women’s Center has 15 beds and is always full, according to Spriggs.

When women get into the shelter, they stay for an average of 30-60 days. They have intensive case management which includes safety planning, finding work or obtaining vital documents in order to be able to get a job. They also help women with budgeting, set up counseling and advise them on how to interact with family members, including members of the abuser’s family if there are children involved. Occasionally if the shelter is full, they will pay for a woman to stay in a hotel for a few nights if she’s in extreme danger from her partner. The center has an upcoming Sock Hop fundraiser at Town Run Brewing on Feb. 25 specifically to fund the hotel costs.

Volunteers are always needed in a variety of capacities from folding clothes and cleaning the shelter, to answering the hotline. Spriggs said they are even currently looking for additional board members. To find out more about volunteer opportunities, email volunteer@swcinc.org.

The hotline is available 24 hours a day at 304-263-8292. Anyone with questions about abuse or in need of help is encouraged to call.