KEYSER, W.Va. — Sex trafficking is underreported in West Virginia because it is often classified as sexual abuse.
"These parents let people take photos of their children and borrow their children and it falls under sexual abuse," said Mia Vansant, vice president of community based services at Burlington United Methodist Family Services during a seminar at the recent Mineral County Family Expo. "West Virginia hasn't done a good job of recognizing that is human trafficking and that's one of the reasons it's underreported."
Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2016, the state had the 49th highest call volume to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a total of 40 calls.
There have been instances of family members selling their infants for drugs and using children for pornographic videos, according to Vansant.
"Those are some of the cases we have seen through our foster care systems," she said. "These are things that happen right here in West Virginia, in our communities that a lot of us don't even think about."
The drug epidemic has led to an increase in cases of human trafficking, Vansant said.
"We are starting to see a lot of families that use their children, their daughters, to make money," she said.
Sex trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act isn't 18, according to the hotline. Sex traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will.
A lot of those arrested for sex trafficking are usually charged with prostitution, Vansant said.
"There is a lot of stigma with it for the men, women and whoever is being trafficked," said Vansant. "I think we have to change our attitude at how we look at victims and what we do afterward as far as law enforcement and prosecution."
Last month in Cumberland, 14 people were arrested as part of a weeks-long investigation of a prostitution ring and one man was charged with human trafficking by force and five counts of human trafficking.
"That is encouraging that they are calling it trafficking and not just prostitution," said Melissa Hines, a therapist at Burlington United Methodist Family Services.
There aren't a lot of resources available for human trafficking victims, including trauma-based therapy in the state, according to Vansant.
Human trafficking is low risk and high profit, Vansant said.
"When you think about trafficking it doesn't have the same kind of penalties that other things people trade in do. A person is almost an endless stream of wealth," said Vansant.
The average trafficking victim is worth $100,000, she said.
To report incidents of human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Follow staff writer Elaine Blaisdell on Twitter @eblaisdell.