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She had loving parents. She had a high school degree. She was 19 and plotting her next move in life. Five years later, Beth was walking a seedy stretch of Sixth Avenue in Huntington and Amber was watching her back while car after car slowed down to check them out. She convinced me there was a freedom in it. Beth, as well as Amber's family, asked that they not be identified by their full names to protect their privacy. And within minutes, a potential john pulled over. No place in America has been hit harder by the opioid epidemic than West Virginia. And no place in America was less prepared for the onslaught.
Already grappling with the loss of thousands of coal mining jobs, stagnant growth and an exodus of young people in search of opportunities elsewhere, the Mountain State was a sitting duck when Big Pharma began pumping prescription painkillers into the state. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is now investigating the pharmaceutical companies and distributors who they say turned West Virginia into the epicenter of the crisis. Nationwide, opioids figured in two-thirds of the 63, fatal overdoses reported in , according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some struggling small cities like Williamson population 3, were swamped with an astounding 6, pills per person over a decade , creating a new generation of addicts and further fraying the already torn social fabric. The epidemic also drove many desperate women, as well as some men, into the street for cash, lawmakers and police said. They go from prescription painkillers to heroin to prostitution.
Matt Meadows, probation officer in Huntington. While some women in West Virginia choose sex work, others are victims of sex trafficking, forced into prostitution against their will. Attorney Andrew Cogar. Matt Meadows, a probation officer in Huntington, said he sees the steady stream of prostitution arrest reports and there is a sad refrain running through them. The West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force , which includes social workers and concerned lawmakers, is trying to figure out how big the problem has become. But what can you do but cry and pray every night, and that doesn't seem to be working.
She was already living on her own and working as a waitress when she first crossed that line. Beth, like other sex workers quoted in this article, is being identified by an alias. Her story has been corroborated by the local police, newspaper s and interviews with her social workers. She was really sick. I said sure. But nobody in my family had been involved in drugs. I felt more social. There was no hangover. Beth had to kick Amber out because she stole. It was 14 hours down and 14 hours back. Then I used one time and I lost my job. I had given up on myself. For the next three years, Beth said she was in and out of rehab.
She lived with her mother for a time and then moved to Virginia to live with her grandmother. That was Amber. Howard in an annex across the street from the imposing county building in Huntington. And when the judge does apply punishment, he generally does so after first consulting the social workers who are trying to help these women get back on track.
There was no carrot for Nicole, the first woman who went before the judge at a recent hearing. Howard, who has heard this excuse many times, shook his head. He upped the of spot drug screenings Nicole is required to do from two to four times a week. And he ordered her to retake a six-week drug awareness course that meets on Saturdays.
More than 1, adults and nearly juveniles statewide in and have appeared in drug courts like the one Howard presides over, according to the state Supreme Court of Appeals. And yet, barely half make it through the program, which typically takes a little over a year, he said. That is why — ahead of the court hearing — Howard met with the probation officers and social workers to review the cases.
All Carly needed now were shoes with nonslip soles. But rather than give her money — and perhaps endanger a person still wrestling with temptation — activist Necia Freeman volunteered to find a pair for her. For half a dozen years, Freeman has been running a ministry through the Lewis Memorial Baptist Church called Brown Bag and Backpacks that provides sex workers with meals, a Gospel tract and a they can call when they are ready to leave the life.
And we give them spoons because we saw them trying to scoop yogurt out of the containers with their fingers. All the johns became a blur as Beth worked the streets. All she could think about was getting high. Any ambition like that was just gone.
Beth said she did things she would never have dreamed of doing sober, like trying to rob a CVS in September with a note that said she had a gun. He took my phone and chained me up. I had to drug him to get the chains off and get away. But it rattled her and she moved on to Roanoke, Virginia, where she tried again to get straight. Warily, her mother agreed. Recovery Point is a bed long-term facility for women in Charleston that is supported by federal grants, donations and fundraising drives.
Within weeks, Marie said, she graduated to heroin and soon started doing sex work to support her habit. I wanted a different life. I knew if I went back out on the street, I would die. Marie, who is 27 and asked not to be identified by her full name, got sober, finished school and landed a job at Recovery Point.
Now she helps recovering women transition from one phase of treatment to the next. Women start with the detox program, which takes three to seven days and introduces them to the Twelve Steps , the philosophy pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. If they make it through the grueling first few days, they are ased a bunk and a shelf for their belongings.
They are required to attend daily drug awareness classes. Needless to say, no drugs or alcohol are allowed. Residents are also barred from using cellphones or driving cars. They must refrain from violence, making racial threats and having sex. As they move up from one phase to the next, they are given more freedom — and more responsibility. They are encouraged to find jobs on the outside once they've completed the program, but they have a strict curfew. In time, they are allowed to spend some nights away until they are ready to live on their own again.
Marie said it takes from nine to 14 months for most patients to graduate, although some like Beth take longer. Since the program started two-plus years ago, 18 women have completed it, and 16 of them are still sober, Marie said. Eleven of the graduates are still at Recovery Point, working as staffers, she said.
And many arrive with a mindset forged by years on the street that everybody can be conned. The rest of the day is structured around chores and meetings where the women sit in a circle and smoke cigarettes and share their stories and draw support from one another. Beth is close to completing Phase 1 of her recovery and preparing for the next phase, which will require her to get a job outside the protective cocoon she has been living in. Beth said she has some short-term goals, like the 10th high school reunion this summer that she is thinking about attending.
She also has a court date coming up for the attempted CVS robbery where she hopes the judge will take her rehab into consideration and expunge the arrest from her record. Long term? Last fall, Beth said she was doing her chores and found herself staring at an all-too-familiar face: Amber. She lasted three days and she was gone. IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser. Share this —. Follow NBC News. By Corky Siemaszko. And it's not even an opioid.
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Women addicted to opioids turn to sex work in West Virginia