By Matt Young, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Human trafficking and foster care were on the agenda this week as the Joint Committee on Children and Families met during the second day of January’s Interim Legislative Session.
The meeting’s first presenter, West Virginia House of Delegates Counsel Robert Leslie, began by providing committee members with “some background” on the risks of human trafficking within the state.
“To explain it simply, human trafficking is basically modern day slavery,” Leslie began. “We all think that slavery ended in the United States with the conclusion of the Civil War. However, I’m sad to say that it does still exist.”
According to Leslie, human trafficking is defined as: “Obtaining, procuring, recruiting, or providing labor, service or commercial sex from another person through the use of fraud, force, or coercion. However, if a person is under 18 years of age, fraud, force, or coercion are not essential elements.”
“Oftentimes if we see something that we think might be human trafficking, or that actually is human trafficking, our instinct is to tamp that down,” Leslie said. “We make apologies for those things. The human being is the only animal that will ignore its instinct. And the sad reality is that that allows trafficking to occur.”
Leslie further explained that underage prostitution is no longer considered a criminal activity, as an underage sex worker is, by definition, a human trafficking victim.
“The young person out there – they’re being prostituted, not prostituting,” Leslie said. “Somebody is behind them working them. No child ever woke up one morning and decided ‘I want to go be a prostitute.’”
Leslie noted that human trafficking is commonly found in cases of runaways, sexual abuse, drug addiction, commercial sex involving minors, child pornography, and drug rings. According to Leslie, more than 70% of minors are sexually exploited within 48-hours of running away.
As part of his presentation, Leslie provided the committee with a list of “Common Misconceptions” surrounding human trafficking, including:
- It only happens overseas.
- The victim has to be moved from one place to another.
- It is limited to situations involving foreign nationals.
- It is limited to sexual exploitation.
- Trafficking victims are forcibly moved to a different place and are confined.
- It does not happen here.
- The trafficking victim allows this to occur.
Further noted as part of Leslie’s presentation: “Human trafficking is the second largest, and fastest growing criminal enterprise worldwide. It is second only to narcotics and is a $150 billion per year industry and includes both labor and sex trafficking.”
“When a trafficker gets a human trafficking victim, they can sell that person again and again and again,” Leslie said, before adding that the average age for children to become a trafficking victim is between 11 and 14 years old.
“For every victim that is trafficked at the age of 18, you have to offset that with a victim who is six to drive the average to 12,” Leslie added. “Let that sink in.”
West Virginia is particularly susceptible to human trafficking, according to Leslie, due, in large part, to the opioid epidemic, an exorbitant number of foster children, and severe economic issues plaguing the state. There are four classifications of trafficking, including commercial sex, labor, and domestic servitude. With regard to the fourth type – human smuggling – West Virginia has not yet established a criminal statute.
“That (human smuggling) may be one of the things that you’re asked to look at this year,” Leslie told committee members. “That is becoming quite a problem, particularly in the panhandles near the interstate.”
At the conclusion of Leslie’s presentation, Jeremiah Samples, senior advisor to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance, spoke of the risks associated with teens aging out of the foster care system.
“I’ll be going through a lot of statistics during this presentation,” Samples began. “But we can never forget that each one of these individuals is a human being – someone who is suffering in ways that I don’t know if anyone in this room can really comprehend.”
According to Samples, West Virginia leads the nation in per capita children in the custody of the foster care system. In addition, for every 1,000 children in the state, 12.8 enter foster care, which is “almost double the next-worse state.”
Another very troubling statistic reported by Samples concerns the number of children who run away from foster settings. A total of 268 foster children ran away in 2021, including 17 who have since aged out of the system.
“Seventeen kids aged out, and they ran away from the foster system,” Samples said. “We don’t know what happened to them.”
“When we talk about risk on a spectrum, and the probability of terrible things happening – and you juxtapose these numbers against what Mr. Leslie had presented,” Samples continued, “those are the types of people (runaways) who are targeted by these folks that would exploit someone that really doesn’t have a linkage to a family, or support in this world.”
“It’s a major problem,” Samples added, before explaining that, as reported by the Bureau for Social Services, the number of West Virginia’s children who have aged out of the foster care system has risen from 210 in 2018, to 229 in 2021.