Greenbrier Valley Aglow Community Lighthouse Shines Light on Human Trafficking
On Saturday, October 22, the Lewisburg West Virginia Community Lighthouse hosted a full-day forum and workshop titled, “Human Trafficking: Stopping the Horror of Modern Day Slavery.” Over the course of the day, more than 100 people had the opportunity to hear from members of law enforcement, educators and other leaders in the fight against human trafficking, as well as from a woman who survived trafficking and now works to help others recover from trauma.
The event was held on the West Virginia State Fairgrounds and was attended by a total of 122 individuals – primarily social workers – from Greenbrier County and surrounding areas. Thanks to a partnership with local law enforcement and Seneca Health Services, Inc., continuing education units (CEUs) were made available to registered nurses, social workers, psychologists and law enforcement officers. Word-of-mouth, brochures, emails, letters to churches, an online event directory and a front-page article in the local newspaper the week of the event were all used to market the conference and raise awareness about human trafficking.
Registering guests were greeted with smiles and fortified with a light breakfast before jumping into the first workshop, “Human Trafficking Awareness.” Brian Morris of Homeland Security Investigations began that discussion by busting a number of common myths surrounding human trafficking – chief among them that it ‘doesn’t happen here’ – and noted that he’d received word just recently of a potential sex trafficking lead in Greenbrier County.
Morris walked attendees through the warning signs to look for in individuals who may be victims of either sex trafficking or forced labor and emphasized the important role educators, social workers, law enforcement officers and medical personnel have in human trafficking cases as they are very often the first people with a real chance to recognize the warning signs, speak with the victims and take action if necessary. In addition to education and awareness, Morris told participants that one of the most effective things they could do, particularly at an event like this one, was to “liaison, liaison, liaison.” Fortunately, it seemed many took his advice and connected with one another throughout the day.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Cogar followed Morris’ presentation with his own, “Human Trafficking 101,” in which he supplied his expertise on the legal definition of human trafficking and the framework the federal and state justice systems use to combat it. Correcting a common misconception that trafficking is only carried out by force, Cogar explained how traffickers often use other means to compel their victims to cooperate through fraud, blackmail, debt bondage, threatening family members and drug addiction. Noting that it is very common for traffickers to use drug addiction to control their victims, Cogar gave the example of a man who used his relationships with women in strip clubs and a doctor who was willing to supply him with unlawful prescriptions for narcotics to get the women addicted to drugs and involved in prostitution in order to control them. One woman, Cogar said, testified that she begged the man for a pill when she was at the painful point of withdrawal, but he refused to supply it unless she turned a trick for him.
Incidentally, pervasive drug addiction is one of the issues that makes West Virginia keenly at risk for human trafficking. The other major risk factors include the Mountain State’s high poverty rate, its close proximity to high trafficking areas, a growing transient population from job creation in the oil and gas industry, and, unfortunately, a perception among traffickers that the state is less likely than others to catch or prosecute them for their crimes. In addition to having more restrictive and cumbersome laws than the federal standard (West Virginia currently requires the presence of two or more persons trafficked within a year period), Cogar said a large part of the problem is that state and local law enforcement and others on the front lines simply don’t recognize trafficking when they see it – harking back to a point Morris made that one child trafficking victim had been encountered by law enforcement 37 times before the trafficking was uncovered simply because officers assumed she was an adult prostitute.
Cogar also touched on where trafficking commonly happens – the internet on sites like backpage.com, foster homes, strip clubs, casinos, massage parlors and traveling sales crews. While noting that the majority of human trafficking complaints constitute sex trafficking, Cogar said traveling sales crews are usually where they find those being sold for forced labor.
In responding to human trafficking cases, Cogar supplied participants of the forum with the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (888-373-7888) and urged them to make the victims’ safety their top priority.
Attendees stretched their legs briefly to collect their box lunches before returning for the afternoon lunch panel, which included presentations by First Lieutenant Daniel Swiger, director of the West Virginia State Police Crimes Against Children Unit, Executive Director Debbie Hancock of Compassion to Act and a recorded video presentation from West Virginia US Senator Shelly Moore-Capito. Deputy Steve Hudnall of the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Office was also slated to speak on the panel, though he was called away for an emergency.
Swiger kindly covered Hudnall’s intended topic – internet safety and the need for parents and guardians to be mindful, vigilant and aware of any time their child spends online. Noting that its not uncommon for elementary school students to tell him they have between 500 to 1,000 friends on Facebook – an account they shouldn’t even have before 14 years of age – Swiger cautioned parents, who obviously realize their child doesn’t know that many people, that some of those ‘friends’ could be dangerous predators. Parents, Swiger said, should know all of their children’s passwords and friends, and should also encourage their children to tell them if someone says or does something online that makes them feel uncomfortable.
As far as his role as the director of the West Virginia State Police Crimes Against Children Unit, Swiger explained that the unit was created in 2006 as part of the Child Protection Act to monitor child abuse and neglect and work with Child Protective Services (CPS). Since then, the unit has grown exponentially, but Swiger said even more training is needed in the area of human trafficking. On the heels of some of that training, Swiger said he was struck by the correlation between abuse and runaways and believed it was time to reevaluate how the state was dealing with runaways. In the past, Swiger confessed, it was rare for law enforcement to follow up with children who had run away or even to ask why they were running. Now, since the unit began monitoring runaways, officers will reach out to kids who have run away more than once to attempt to find out why and/or to educate the child on the dangers they are exposing themselves to when they run. Typically, Swiger said, they find abuse or neglect to be the cause. Though efforts like these are a step in the right direction, Swiger said under-reporting of human trafficking in West Virginia is largely due to lack of awareness and/or lack of personnel to follow up with leads.
Debbie Hancock, cofounder and executive director of Compassion to Act, shifted the tone of the workshop from the statistics and the pragmatics to the hearts of the women who are trafficked and even those of the men who participate in the act. Compassion to Act was founded in North Carolina when the founders felt a call from God to liberate and restore victims of human trafficking. Hancock confessed that she, too, thought they would be working overseas until the Father opened their eyes to see how much of it was going on in their own backyard.
Today, the faith-based ministry operates a Compassion Cottage to shelter and gently restore trafficking survivors, a men’s ministry to combat the addiction of pornography and a club outreach that sends volunteers into Charlotte area strip clubs each month to bring gifts, words of encouragement, hugs, prayers and unconditional love to the women who work there. Hancock explained that strip clubs are one of the most common places for traffickers to recruit victims.
In addition to rescuing women out of sex trafficking or out of lifestyles where they may be at risk and restoring those survivors who have already been abused, Hancock believes that a key piece to ending sex trafficking will be found in addressing the ‘demand’ side of the equation – which is often fueled by and correlated with a pornography addiction. Hancock shared a number of staggering statistics on how prevalent searches for and consumption of pornography is in our nation and shared how her organization is working to mobilize Men of Compassion who will work to change the perception of pornography, hold other men accountable for their actions toward women and children and strive to bring hope to marriages through transparency and open communication.
The lunch panel concluded with a brief but productive question and answer session with the speakers who had spoken thus far before participants settled in again to hear from Elisabeth Corey, a human trafficking survivor and social worker, on the “Culture of Family-Controlled Trafficking.”
Corey began her presentation by putting to rest myths about trafficking victims and noting that she, as a survivor of family-controlled trafficking who grew up in a suburban, middle class family in a gated community in northern Virginia, fit none of the stereotypes. Physically abused from infancy by her father who would suffocate her to get her to stop crying and sexually abused as a toddler by multiple family members in order to desensitize her to the act of rape, Corey said she was trafficked by her parents and other family members between the ages of 7 and 9. Corey also noted that most survivors she knows say they were trafficked much younger than statistics indicate – precisely because families have greater access to young children.
“I was broken by the age of 9 – by broken, I mean that I was no longer asking for help,” Corey explained. “That’s why we need to get to kids as soon as we can.”
When it comes to looking for signs and patterns of individuals or families who may be involved in trafficking, Corey said “power addicts and control junkies” are the ones to watch, as trafficking is not as much about sex as it is about control. Many traffickers will often exhibit this trait by seeking out positions of power in local organizations, befriending powerful people within and outside the law, obsessing over climbing the corporate ladder and so on. They will also likely engage in power plays within a family unit by ensuring the home is always in some sort of upheaval, comparing siblings to one another, gaslighting and creating the threat that basic needs like food and shelter may be stripped away if they do not comply.
From the outside, Corey explained, a family that engages in sex trafficking will likely strive to appear as normal as possible. As such, children will often perform very well in school in order to avoid suspicion, homes will appear immaculately decorated and put-together, and parents may be involved in numerous social activities. Corey noted that parents who are abusing their children will network with other families who traffick, but will avoid allowing their children to be alone with any outside adult for fear the child may open up and expose the abuse.
Despite the deep, psychological impact and prevalence of family-controlled trafficking, Cory lamented that the subject is often ignored in the media as an inconvenient truth. Compounded by the fact that many children are so traumatized by the events that they literally dissociate and/or forget the abuse they suffered, recovery is a difficult and often life-long process. Corey discussed some of that process in her own recovery as well as how she is working with other survivors of trauma.
Yvonne Williams, coordinator of National Educators to Stop Trafficking (NEST), took a moment before her presentation to address a positive sounding bill that she asked attendees to research a little deeper before supporting. The End Modern Slavery Initiative Act, introduced by U.S. Senator Bob Corker, seeks to increase funding for initiatives which combat human trafficking – but only in foreign countries. Williams noted that while that is good, there are thousands of organizations fighting this issue in the United States that receive little or no funding, despite the fact that America is one of the premier countries that perpetrates human trafficking.
Returning to her topic, “Prevention Programming: What It Can Look Like in the Classroom,” Williams said she was glad to conclude the workshop with a strategy that can address the demand side of the human trafficking equation: education. Underscoring the depth of the problem, Williams cited findings from Heather Tuininga, executive director of the Luke 12:48 Foundation, who discovered that 74-86 percent of the men who purchased sex bought by the time they were 25 years old. The youngest surveyed was a 14-year-old who said his father took him to purchase sex to “become a man,” and the oldest was an 86-year-old who said he was seeking companionship. The study also found that men who purchase sex do so on average of 7-8 times a week. NEST was founded, Williams said, to address precisely this issue by educating young men on the dangers of human trafficking to themselves, the women they are purchasing, their communities and the world. Their aim would be to change the way men think about sex, women and what it means to be a man in hopes of eliminating the demand, and thus the supply, for human trafficking altogether.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, the founders of NEST spent two years gathering and vetting every human trafficking prevention curriculum they could get their hands on in order to provide educators and social workers with the opportunity to choose the best resources for the students they needed to reach. The curricula is made available on the NEST website, nesteducators.org, and categorized by age level, cost, program length and a variety of other factors. Most of the resources are geared toward educating both genders, but Williams recommended the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation’s curriculum, “Empowering Young Men to Stop Sexual Exploitation” as an excellent resource for reaching out to young men. In addition to educating young men, many of the resources available on the NEST website also have the capacity to reach girls who may be undergoing abuse or trafficking already with resources that can help them. Williams noted that some teachers have reported having girls reveal abuse after being involved in some of the programs.
Those interested in using any of the NEST resources in their Sunday school classes, social work programs, or even public schools are encouraged to visit the NEST website and talk to their local boards of education about adding human trafficking prevention training to their curriculum.