CHARLESTON — More training is needed to help West Virginia child welfare workers identify human trafficking and more support is needed for survivors.
The lack of understanding, education and training can lead to misidentification of trafficking offenses, which can result in lesser criminal penalties, as well as hindering or delaying victims from getting vital services for trafficking survivors, said Kendra Boley-Rogers, program director with the Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Social Services. Boley-Rogers updated the Joint Committee on Children and Families about the state’s response to human trafficking within child welfare Monday during the state Legislature’s interim session.
Between Oct. 1, 2017, and Aug. 31, 2021, 70 trafficking referrals were made to DHHR. The victims ranged in age from 1 to 18 years old.
Most of the referrals were for sex trafficking, but five were for labor trafficking. Of the 65 sex trafficking referrals, 44 were parent/caregivers and 21 were non-parent/caregiver, and most victims were female. Of labor trafficking, three were parents/caregivers and two were non-parent/caregivers. All labor trafficking victims were male.
Only four of those 70 referrals were substantiated, with approximately eight cases currently pending. There are an additional four sex trafficking disclosures from victims that were made, but could not be associated to the correct maltreater. For example, a victim did not disclose who trafficked them.
One was labor trafficking, a case of a man taking advantage of three immigrant children.
Seven were sex trafficking, five by a non-parent/caregiver and two by a parent/caregiver. Some of the cases involved a parent selling their child for sexual favors in exchange for drugs and, in one case, housing.
Boley-Rogers said sometimes those in child welfare and the general population envision a Hollywood version of human trafficking, thinking it’s always a “Taken” situation or perpetrated by strangers. But as evidenced by the confirmed cases in West Virginia, it’s often done by someone the child knows and trusts, and often triggered by desperate situations.
Survivors of trafficking also often don’t know they have been trafficked, she said. This misunderstanding can lead to cases being treated as typical abuse and neglect.
Children who enter the Child Protective Services system, including trafficking victims, are entitled to services including shelter, food, clothing and mental health help. However, there is only one therapist in the state that specializes in human trafficking survivor treatment.
“It’s critical to that dynamic, because a lot of times your victims don’t see themselves as victims, they don’t understand what’s happening,” she said. “Specifically when you’re talking about your children, and that familial trafficking dynamic. A lot of children we see, they don’t really understand that’s what’s going on and what’s been happening. Over the years, they realize ‘Oh, it was trafficking.’ So it’s really critical for that specific training. So that victims can understand that they are the victims, so that they can receive the appropriate services necessary to heal.”
DHHR is working on more training for child welfare workers on how to identify human trafficking and a statewide task force is working on ways to bring more services to West Virginia to assist survivors. The task force is also working on ways to identify areas of risk for trafficking so services can be targeted.
Currently, local rape crisis centers assist survivors, though they receive no state assistance, said Katie Spriggs, director of the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center. She said crisis centers are perfectly poised to assist human trafficking victims with their already 24/7 services, including help with shelter, law enforcement and mental health.