January is observed as a month to pay particular attention to human trafficking, but January 11 is Human Trafficking Awareness Day — and advocates in West Virginia are working to spread awareness about the issue that they say hits close to home.
Human Trafficking has been an ongoing issue for years now and while the epidemic has spread worldwide, the atrocities are happening closer to home in Martinsburg and in the rural areas in West Virginia.
“What was told to me was you ran away. It was your choice and what was really happening was I was trying to survive,” Angie Conn said, a human trafficking survivor and advocate.
Trying to survive, Conn shares her experience as a human trafficking survivor leader and advocate for the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force.
At the age of 16, she was labeled a troublemaker, acted out and recruited into “forced prostitution.”
It wasn’t until three and a half years ago that she came to the conclusion that she was a victim of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the United States.
“Around here [West Virginia], it’s mostly happening here with people who are born here,” said Katie Spriggs, executive director at Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center in Martinsburg.
Advocates at the center say the two most common types of human trafficking in the Eastern Panhandle are “familial trafficking,” when a family member trafficks the child and “intimate partner trafficking,” which is in an intimate relationship.
In the rural areas of West Virginia, the trafficking often happens within the household itself.
“It seems like we’re having this huge rise, but I think we are just labeling it for what it is,” Spriggs said.
In 2017, the center served 82 survivors of human trafficking.
“Our stories in that moment don’t define who we are, who we are capable of being,” Conn said.
Advocates say one of the most impactful things you can do to help human trafficking survivors is to listen to their stories and believe them.
If you or anyone you know is a victim of human trafficking, please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. You can also contact the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center in Martinsburg at 1-304-263-8292.