West Virginia is trying to improve its grade on laws regarding human trafficking. According to the website, Shared Hope which provides grades of all 50 states relating to trafficking laws, West Virginia received a "D" in 2016.
Last week, however, the West Virginia Senate passed House Bill 2318, introduced by Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, which creates felony offenses and penalties for using a person in forced labor, debt bondage and commercial sexual activity. It also creates a felony for patronizing a person to engage in commercial sexual activity and provides immunity from prosecution for minors who might otherwise be prosecuted for prostitution.
Shepherdstown Police Chief Mike King feels that stiffer penalties are appropriate to try to slow the problem.
"Does anybody think that things will change if we arrest a person for trafficking and he goes to court and gets a slap on the wrist and a fine? It's not going to change a thing. He's just going to pick up and move to a different location and open business again," said King.
In areas just outside of West Virginia, this problem is more common, but trafficking is on the rise, not only nationally, but globally as well.
Traffickers see this crime as low-risk, high reward due to the lack of prosecutions and even the low probability of being caught.
King admits that trafficking can be difficult to identify. "A problem with sex trafficking and prostitution is that the victims don't always see themselves as victims. They often refer to their trafficker as a 'boyfriend' and say that they are in a relationship." King continued, "It is coming to light, with the training that is happening now, that this is not a victimless crime. It was looked at as a victimless crime for many years. The law isn't blurry, but each case is.
King says that all of his officers have had training on identifying trafficking, and that the state now does require training. However, he's not sure prosecutions will see an increase just yet.
"Unfortunately, this is a crime right now that is relatively low on the list of things to do for investigative units because the drugs are so rampant right now with all of the overdoses we have. There's so much pressure for that kind of activity to be squashed," said King. "It's a pretty high probability that there are drugs involved wherever there is sex trafficking. "The drug problem is easier to identify and to make make arrests to shut it down."
With the spotlight on the opioid problem in our area and with budgetary constraints in the state, it remains to be seen if there will be dedicated investigators to address the issue of sex and labor trafficking in West Virginia. However, with awareness on the rise, law enforcement officials feel certain there will be more cases brought to light in the panhandle.
Sargent Will Garrett from the West Virginia State Police Crimes Against Children Division is one of three officers in that division who cover all seven counties in the panhandle.
Garrett said, "We are constantly getting cyber tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on a monthly basis for possible child solicitation on the internet and possible child prostitution. Every now and then, we might get something for an alleged human trafficking event, but that's few and far between right now."
Garrett continued, "What we do has an impact, but it's just the tip of the iceburg."
According to Garrett, statewide in 2016, the West Virginia Crimes Against Children Division had over 900 cases.
His unit conducted a successful sting operation in Berkeley County for the Eastern Panhandle in 2016 as well, the largest one to date for the West Virginia State Police.
"We ended up getting about seven individuals who traveled or attempted to travel to bring themselves withing the presence of a minor for the purposes of having some sort of sexual interaction," said Garrett.
According to statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2016 were likely sex trafficking victims. A shocking 86 percent of these likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing. Many of these children runaway to meet someone that they have engaged with online or are picked up, groomed for trafficking, then solicited.
"We are trying to make some headway," said King, "but we are starting down a long path that has no end in sight."