By Carrie Hodousek, wvmetronews.com
ST. MARYS, W.Va. — Pleasants County Circuit Judge Timothy Sweeney and Secretary of State Mac Warner are planning to host a human trafficking forum Tuesday night.
The forum will take place at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of St. Marys High School in St. Marys.
Sweeney said even though he hasn’t dealt with any cases of human trafficking in his district — the third judicial circuit which covers Doddridge, Pleasants and Ritchie counties — he still has concerns about the issue for West Virginia as a whole.
“If we can make people aware of the problems that they can be watching out for and if they see anything that might indicate that there’s some activity in that regard to get that reported,” Sweeney said.
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to make victims engage in commercial sex acts or provide labor against their will.
Sweeney said a Mason County couple was recently arrested for human trafficking. There was also a case in Martinsburg where a woman was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison.
“It’s definitely around,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney and Warner will provide a presentation on how human trafficking is significantly underreported, partly due to lack of public awareness.
“It’s just to inform the public of the issue and some of the problems with the issue, maybe some of the signs to look for to be able to determine if it is going on,” Sweeney said. “We’re going to have a presentation and a panel to answer question participants of the audience might have.”
A state human trafficking hotline has received more than 800 calls since its inception in 2007, resulting in 550 victims being identified in 246 cases, according to the state Department of Homeland Security.
According to a 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, 1,169 cases were brought for human trafficking. These include 208 cases for peonage, slavery, forced labor and sex trafficking; 432 cases for transportation for illegal sex activity; and 529 cases for sexual exploitation and other abuse of children.
There have been a number of statewide initiatives to tackle the issue. Warner launched a statewide coalition of 42 businesses and organizations called West Virginia Businesses Against Trafficking.
The “YOU CAN” anti-trafficking initiative launched last month by Gov. Jim Justice and the West Virginia Fusion Center in the Department of Homeland Security. The campaign encourages the public to report suspect incidents of human trafficking.