West Virginia University School of Medicine researcher is developing an app to train key personnel in rural areas how to identify and report one of the lesser known elements of the opioid epidemic— child sex trafficking.

“Trafficking is often done to fuel someone’s illicit drug habit,” said Amie Ashcraft, director of research for the Department of Family Medicine. “In West Virginia, we’ve only recently started appreciating that it’s happening here.” 

In rural West Virginia, where there is geographic isolation, lower levels of education and fewer economic opportunities, Ashcraft said drug users sometimes turn to trafficking as a cash source. 

“The sexual exploitation of children can involve stripping, pornography or prostitution,” she said. “There’s widespread misunderstanding about what ‘trafficking’ actually is. It occurs when one person sells another for a profit. It often gets miscategorized as child abuse, sexual abuse or kidnapping. Many people think it involves movement across borders and believe it’s something that only happens in bigger cities.”

In rural areas, Ashcraft said child victims are more likely to be trafficked by people they know — even their own mothers. 

“It’s a heart-wrenching problem.” 

While Ashcraft said that training efforts to date have largely focused on West Virginia law enforcement, many others need the skills to recognize it, too. 

In its first phase, the prototype of the desktop and mobile app — SexEx Rural — will focus on training for public school personnel and county health department staff. These individuals were targeted for training because they’re most likely to come into contact with a child who has been trafficked. 

“We want to train them to recognize the physical, emotional, and interpersonal signs of child sex trafficking,” Ashcraft said. 

Content for the educational modules will be created with input from trafficking survivors, educators, healthcare providers and members of the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force. The prototype will include audio narration, video clips, real-world examples trafficking, learning exercises, and interactive quizzes. Video content for the app will be created in collaboration with the WVU LaunchLab. Student actors, directors and videographers will create interactive scenes representing potential trafficking scenarios for school and health department personnel using the app to practice their identification skills. 

In addition to training on how to identify victims, the app will also connect trainees with a searchable resource center that includes available resources for reporting and supporting victims, such as local phone numbers for rape and domestic violence crisis centers, first responders, and crisis hotlines. 

Partners in the initiative include the Randolph-Elkins Health Department, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department and the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department. Ashcraft said the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force has also been supportive of and instrumental to the project. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Injury Prevention and Control is funding the development and testing of the prototype app through a Small Business Innovative Research Phase I grant for $225,000 over 12 months. Two other principal investigators from DFusion and ETR Associates will also be involved in the app’s development and testing. 

“The good thing about the app is it’s easily scalable and cheap,” Ashcraft said. “It also can be accessed in rural areas without a reliable internet connection.” 

While child sex trafficking is a grim subject, Ashcraft said awareness is essential. 

“Recognizing it is key. Victims of trafficking face a lot of negative life and health outcomes now and in the future, so the sooner it’s caught, the better,” she said. “We really want to raise that awareness, to get these skills out to much smaller communities so people will recognize it when they see it.”

Originally from Cassie Thomas for WVU Today