- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. (AP) - While statistics about human trafficking in West Virginia can be a little difficult to find, there are professionals in the state - as well as others who visit here - who deal with this type of crime and are actively working to eliminate it at the state, national and global levels.

Shepherdstown resident Dr. Danielle Johnson, a global hotlines program specialist who covers the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe with Polaris - a nonprofit, non-governmental organization founded in 2002 that works to combat and prevent human trafficking nationally and abroad - spoke about the importance of hotlines and other collaborative efforts.

She said the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), operated by Polaris, was founded in 2007. It is a national, toll-free hotline (1-888-373-7888), that answers calls from anywhere in the country - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year - and in more than 200 languages.

“It is a completely multiple service hotline, and we have multiple access points so you can call, text, email or submit an online form. The smallest percentage of calls we get are from victims calling for crisis assistance, but we also get lots of calls from family members and friends of victims as well as generally interested community members . We also have people calling for training and technical assistance, such as being able to identify trafficking when they see it happening,” Johnson said.

While she originally planned to be a doctor, Johnson instead ended up teaching English in Bosnia in 2005, after graduating from college. That’s where she first got really interested in human rights abuses, she said in an interview prior to her conference presentation.

“I was teaching English to high school students in a very small town that had been ethnically cleansed. All of these kids were remarkable because they’d experienced horrific losses and deaths due to what had happened locally,” Johnson said.

Prior to her arrival, Serbia began to “ethnically cleanse” the country in April 2002 by removing Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks - actions that ultimately “displaced tens of thousands of people, led to the detention of several thousand more and also resulted in the apparent purposeful deaths of at least several hundred individuals,” according to the U.S. CIA website.

Other aid organizations in the country reported Bosniaks being driven into concentration camps where females of various ages were gang-raped and other civilians tortured, starved and murdered.

Despite these atrocities, students - who’d lost parents, siblings and other family members - had a positive attitude that transcended this trauma and also touched her heart, Johnson said.

“They told me before I left that the one thing they wanted people to know is that Bosnia is a happy country. I never got over that, and ended up going to graduate school to focus on human rights issues,” she said.

“I’ve since been lucky enough to work with Polaris and focus on human trafficking, because there is so much to do to eliminate it. And we’re making progress every day,” Johnson said, adding that training on the hotline as a new employee had been “transformative” because it allowed her to speak directly with others.

“I am so inspired to keep working on this issue,” she said.

Deputy attorney general J. Robert “Bob” Leslie, a former circuit judge who works in the West Virginia Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division, said he was happy to help kick off the recent conference and welcome participants to the state.

“I am just dumbfounded that this international conference is here; it is just amazing. And I can’t think of a better venue for it, because the same things that bring people here and allow so much traffic to move through this part of the state can bring illegal commodities such as human trafficking because our proximity makes this a crossroads for all sorts of activities,” he said.

It was also a good opportunity to explain how Patrick Morrisey has joined with other attorney generals nationally to fight human trafficking, he said.

No stranger to this issue, Leslie still vividly remembers how he first got involved with human trafficking investigations and litigation.

“It was about two years ago, and we’d heard about an Asian massage parlor that was probably operating with trafficked individuals. So we had an in-house meeting where the general counsel explained the situation, and asked who wanted to work on combating human trafficking,” he said, adding that the massage parlor was raided and closed.

“Well, my hand immediately shot into the air, but when I looked around, mine was the only one in the air and I’ve never regretted that action. It fits perfectly with human rights and I want to do my best to make a difference because human trafficking is an emerging trend,” Leslie said.

Although she lives in New Jersey, FBI National Academy Associates President Laurie B. Cahill said she was changed by a recent experience in north central West Virginia when she’d attended a state chapter meeting at Camp Dawson in Preston County.

At that time, a guest speaker who’d been a human trafficking victim was the featured speaker, she said.

“She said her goal was for officers, like us, to really understand what human trafficking is. And I know it sure had an impact on me when she spoke about her horrific journey from Hungary to Toronto after answering an ad on Craig’s List, because after arriving she couldn’t leave. They just took her, saying she had to work off the plane ticket,” Cahill said.

In the end, the woman was forced into prostitution, drugged and was isolated from others - especially anyone who might become suspicious of her situation or want to help plan an escape, she said. Ironically, a policeman who’d seen the woman while she’d been pimped out didn’t realize her situation until he heard her speak later, Cahill said.

“Even though we were in the mountains of West Virginia, she made it clear that there is no absolute safe haven. You could go into a local pizzeria and not realize someone working there is being forced to stay, especially since human trafficking in terms of forced labor isn’t easy to detect unless someone comes forward to report it,” she said.

Cahill, whose organization consists of graduates from the FBI’s national academy and has members worldwide, said hosting this international event is important “because continued progress requires strong, active partnerships,” she said.

“We just feel strongly that it’s important for us, and as many others as possible, to have a hand in this kind of initiative. Because it doesn’t matter whether you are in Charles Town or another country, human trafficking needs to be a concern,” Cahill said.

___

Information from: The Journal, https://journal-news.net/

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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