WVU researcher developing app to help identify victims of rural sex trafficking
A researcher at West Virginia University School of Medicine is developing a mobile app to train key personnel in rural areas how to identify and report child sex trafficking.
According to a press release from WVU, child sex trafficking is a lesser known element of the opioid epidemic.
“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.”
According to Ashcraft, in rural West Virginia, where there is geographic isolation, lower levels of education and fewer economic opportunities, 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, child victims are more likely to be trafficked by people they know -- even their own mothers, according to Ashcraft.
Ashcraft says that while training efforts to date have largely focused on West Virginia law enforcement, many others need the skills to recognize it, too.
The prototype of the desktop and mobile app, SexEx Rural, will focus on training for public school personnel and county health department staff in its first phase, according to the press release. 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.
The press release states that content for the education 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-word examples of trafficking, learning exercises and interactive quizzes.
Videos for the app will be created in collaboration with the university's LaunchLab, the press release states. Interactive scene representing potential trafficking scenarios will be created by student actors, directors and videographers.
The app will also connect trainees with a searchable resource center that includes available resources for reporting and supporting victims, according to WVU. This includes local phone numbers for rape and domestic violence crisis centers, first responders and crisis hotlines.
WVU says that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Injury Prevention and Contral is funding the development and testing of the prototype through a Small Business Innovative Research Phase I grant for $225,000 over a year. Two other principal investigators from DFusion and ETR Associates will 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.”
Ashcraft says that while child sex trafficking is a grim subject, 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.”