Deputy West Virginia Attorney General: Human Trafficking Can Affect Anyone, Anywhere

Photo by Joselyn King Robert Leslie, senior deputy attorney general with the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office, speaks Tuesday at the Wheeling YWCA.

WHEELING — Human trafficking doesn’t just happen in foreign countries, but is active in West Virginia — affecting all ages and genders, according to the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office.

Robert Leslie, senior deputy attorney general with the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office, addressed domestic violence counselors and victims advocates Tuesday at the Wheeling YWCA. His presentation focused on how best to recognize the signs of human trafficking in their clients.

Human trafficking is defined as a service, labor or commercial sex that happens because of force, fraud or coercion, according to Leslie.

He debunked the common misconception that human trafficking is linked to foreign countries, explaining that importing victims for exploitation isn’t economical for the abuser or even convenient.

“When you think about it, why would a trafficker pay somebody in a third-world country to find people, then pay to send them to the United States?” Leslie said. “All they have to do is go down to the local mall find some kids with low self-esteem, and tell them they’re pretty.”

He said the average age a female typically attracted into sex trafficking is 12 to 14. For males, the age is even lower at 11 to 13, according to Leslie.

Those are “average” ages, Leslie said. For every 18 year-old victimized by human trafficking, there is a 6-year-old victim being exploited by adults.

He cited figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicating that human trafficking is the fastest-growing and second-largest criminal industry in the world today. It is second only to drug trafficking, according to the agency.

Leslie said human trafficking is believed to be a $150-billion-per-year industry worldwide, though the figure is probably considerably higher as much of the activity goes undetected.

It is estimated there are 21 million trafficking victims globally, he said.

In 2016, there were 5,670 reports of human trafficking in Ohio, and 1,203 cases investigated, according to Leslie. This compares to 232 calls in West Virginia that year, and 68 cases investigated.

“One victim is too many,” Leslie said. “We recognize the problem is underreported, but that it is also substantial.”

Later on Tuesday, Leslie addressed those attending the West Virginia Prevention Resource Officer Annual Conference at The Highlands Event Center.

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