Officials: Children being forced into human trafficking in the Ohio Valley

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We’re taking a few moments to recognize the hundreds, maybe even thousands of children right here, who are subjected to a life of modern day slavery.

The children who are forced to forego their innocence, tricked into thinking that being raped and molested is normal, the “Faces of Human Trafficking.”

37% of the girls in just one local residential program report engaging in sexual acts in exchange for something of value.  There are still many other children that don’t disclose due to fear of retaliation or getting someone else into trouble.

“I was in that situation from around the age of 15 until 18 and then I was commercially sexually exploited from the age of about 23 until the age of 26,” said Angie Conn who is a survivor of human trafficking.

Often times we might associate prostitution as a form of human trafficking, which it is, but do you ever stop and think about the innocent children forced to do things that no child should ever have to do?

Angie Conn of Hurricane, West Virginia was one of those children.

“I had a young lady who her father needed pain medications, he was addicted to them and she really thought that her job, part of what she could do to help her dad get his pills, was whatever she needed to do with the next door neighbor,” said Kathy Szafran, the Executive Director of Crittenton Services. She deals with many of these cases first-hand.

For Angie Conn, her trafficking encounter started from a longing to be loved and to fit in.

“One night I decided that I would go out to a party and at this party, I was sexually assaulted for the first time at the age of 14,” Conn said.

It was from there that Conn felt an incredible amount of shame and self-guilt. She held onto that secret, but she then began acting out. She started skipping school, doing drugs, drinking, and stealing. Then she started to date older men. Men who were adults, when she was still a young child.

Conn said, “At 15, I ran away and met up with my boyfriend that was 19 and he took me to a party and I was sold for the very first time, at that party for drugs.”

“Some don’t even realize that what’s happened to them is so wrong in so many ways and they love their families and they want to protect their families and for a lot of them, if they had a chance they would go back to their families,” Szafran said about many of the girls that she has worked with over the years.

Young victims of human trafficking tend to think that it’s normal to do these things. In fact, they think that if they don’t do the unthinkable then someone else in their family will suffer, or in Conn’s case, they won’t be loved.

It’s a very distorted idea of what love is, but professionals say for many children a longing for love an acceptance at home can have long-term detrimental impacts on a child’s life.

“If you look at it from the perspective of trauma and severe trauma, it’s much more devastating to the young person, because this is what we call complex trauma. It’s something that happens through the people who are supposed to love you and protect you,” said Szafran.

Conn is now a consultant for a number of government agencies and non-profits. Children who are trafficked usually show signs that something is going on.

Those include drastic changes in behavior, telling tales of having older boyfriends or girlfriends, suddenly starting to possess more expensive things.

Conn said these are all signs that something more may be happening than you might think. This awful trend doesn’t just affect little girls, many little boys are trafficked as well. According to Conn, girls are usually forced into trafficking between the ages of 12 and 14. For boys, it’s common for them to be forced into it between the ages of 11 and 13. 

Conn says in many cases, but not all, children of addicted households and families are at risk of being trafficked. West Virginia and Ohio are two of the leading states in the U.S.when it comes to the opioid epidemic and professionals agree that drugs and human trafficking go hand-in-hand. People become desperate for drugs and they may do things that people who are not addicted wouldn’t. 

Conn also encourages parents to keep a watchful eye on the things your kids do on electronic devices. She says that is a major way that predators might target your kids. She said that the internet can act as a welcome mat for predators to come into your home and target your kids and if you don’t pay close attention you might not know. 

Polaris Project acknowledges these characteristics as general indicators that a person may be trafficked.

Common Work and Living Conditions: The individual(s) in question

  • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
  • Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
  • Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp/manager
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • High-security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
  • Avoids eye contact

Poor Physical Health

  • Lacks health care
  • Appears malnourished
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

Lack of Control

  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)

Other

  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
  • Loss of sense of time
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story

This list is not exhaustive and represents only a selection of possible indicators. Also, the red flags in this list may not be present in all trafficking cases and are not cumulative. Learn more at www.humantraffickinghotline.org.

The YWCA Wheeling is heavily involved in helping victims of human trafficking as well. Executive Director Lori Jones said her organization has recently hired a specialist who will focus solely on human trafficking victims. Jones also said they are working with law enforcement to better diagnose situations and help separate human trafficking from other crimes to make sure the ringleaders are prosecuted accordingly and the victims are given the care they need.  

If you suspect that something illegal is happening near you, you can always call our anonymous Lauttamus Security CrimeFighters Tip Line at 1-800-223-0312. Your call will always be kept confidential.

You’re also urged to call one of these many organization that might be able to help. 
Sexual Assault Help Center: 1-800-884-7242
The National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
The Rebecca Bender Initiative: Text “HELP” to 233733 (BE FREE)
The WV Coalition Against Domestic Violence: 1-304-956-4552
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: 1-800-THE-LOST

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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