Trafficking, Meet COVID-19: A Crossroad of Crises

By Cheryl K. Chumley

In late April 2020, officers with the Fairfax County Police Department arrested 30 men aged between 20 and 74 years old and charged them with a total of 68 felony charges ranging from solicitation of a minor to attempted indecent liberties of a minor, to soliciting a minor for prostitution.

It was a major bust of alleged sex predators who were seeking out underage victims in the heavily traveled Northern Virginia-Maryland-District of Columbia corridor. But as news leaked to the press and officers began giving their statements, what emerged as particularly notable about the undercover investigation was the name it had been dubbed: Operation COVID Crackdown.

“Our detectives have remained vigilant, and they recognized the increased threat posed by online predators in recent weeks,” said Fairfax County’s bureau commander of major crimes, Major Ed O’Carroll. “I commend their ability to adapt during this unprecedented public health pandemic and to do so in the interest of protecting our children and bringing justice to those who commit these repugnant crimes.”

This case brings to light an example of how the spread of COVID-19 can impact human trafficking and our work fighting it.  As people have quarantined at home and had to temporarily close businesses, experts have concerns about increased online grooming, economic desperation, and a reduction in assistance to nonprofit organizations.  

More Time Online = Higher Risk of Grooming

The tie between school closures due to COVID-19 and sex trafficking has been on the minds of law enforcement for months. Why? An estimated 55 million students around the nation were suddenly without school—and suddenly thrown into situations that left them with blocks of time to fill, hours of daylight to kill. For many, the internet is a natural go-to. And predators aren’t stupid—it’s not as if they were unaware of the flood of new online opportunities to connect with minors that COVID-19 presented.

“Parents should be on high alert with screen times increasing and predators flocking to social media to groom unsuspecting youth,” said both Courtney Litvak, a Childproof America ambassador and a U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking member, and Kelly Litvak, Childproof America’s executive director and founder, in a joint emailed statement.

Good advice.

Joseph Scaramucci, a Polaris Project consultant and Texas detective who leads the human trafficking unit at the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office and has worked on trafficking cases with federal and state law enforcement partners across the nation, jumpstarted an operation in April to put extra eyes online to catch would-be predators who might try to take advantage of the coronavirus stay-at-home situation. The operation yielded about 20 arrests, all charged with various sex crimes against children. But it’s too soon to conclude if these arrests came as a direct result of this “new normal” that America is facing with the coronavirus—where children are at home all day—or if these arrests would have taken place regardless.

“However,” Scaramucci said, in a Waco Tribune-Herald statement, “with our children spending more time at home, sitting in front of electronic devices with access to the internet and social media, this seemed like a good idea to address any concerns where individuals may seek to exploit children.”

At the same time, Scaramucci cautioned against panic. While logic might suggest that stay-at-home orders would open the doors for more traffickers to solicit more minors online—or at the opposite end of the spectrum—that stay-at-home orders might actually dampen traffickers’ chances to connect with clients and make money off victims, the fact is that statistics haven’t fluctuated much in recent times. Scaramucci confirmed that the actual numbers of sex trafficking cases, both in Texas and around the nation have remained fairly steady.

To learn more about online grooming, take a look at our blog on the topic.  

The Economic Effects of COVID on Trafficking 

The bigger threat comes by way of the economic standstill that’s spread across America, closing businesses, drying up employment opportunities, and throwing workers into furlough, onto the unemployment line, and scrambling for stimulus dollars. These are especially desperate times for current trafficking victims, as well as those who recently escaped the clutches of their traffickers, or who have been planning to flee their situations.

Hannah McPeak, director of education and board secretary at Hope Against Trafficking noted that specific data on percentages isn’t available. “What we can say is that when you think about the culture of individuals’ being trafficked—poverty, drug abuse—that with all these vulnerabilities, COVID-19 brings an increase of stress.”

The trickledown of stress on a family facing sudden employment might lead some to make decisions they might not otherwise have made. “Somebody struggling for income, somebody who’s lost a job or is stressing to put food on the table—all these stresses combined with COVID-19 are amplified,” McPeak said. “Now they might be enticed by an ad [for a job] that seems good—that they would never have considered normally.”

For those unfamiliar with the world of trafficking, such a vulnerability as described by McPeak sounds somewhat ludicrous. After all, who would answer an ad to be trafficked and then after realizing the folly, consent to stay a victim? But it’s a well-known, well-documented situation.

As the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in an essay on human trafficking: “Poverty, gender discrimination, illiteracy and low levels of education, regional conflicts, and a lack of job opportunities affect women in great numbers. Such conditions pressure women to migrate and make them particularly vulnerable to trafficking—that is, to unscrupulous recruiters or employers who, through force, fraud, or coercion, place women in job situations to which they did not consent and from which they cannot freely escape.”

As a means of helping vulnerable populations during these high-stress COVID-19 times, McPeak’s organization is hosting weekly webinars, titled “Cup of Hope,” to let those in desperate situations realize first, they’re not alone, and second, that although many service facilities have closed because of social distancing orders, assistance is still available.

McPeak’s group isn’t the only one making targeted messages for trafficked victims to successfully navigate the coronavirus crisis. Free to Thrive, a San Diego-based nonprofit that provides legal assistance to trafficked victims, launched the Survivors of Trafficking Essential Emergency Resources (STEER) Program to help with everything from hunger to domestic violence.

“The [COVID-19] stresses we’re all experiencing are worse for someone who has survived the trauma of trafficking and can trigger a major setback,” said Free to Thrive president and founder Jamie Beck in a press release.

How COVID Impacts Nonprofits

Meanwhile, Suzi Day, director of Free to Thrive’s development and survivor empowerment program, said since the state’s stay-at-home orders took effect, staffers have provided aid and emergency services, helping 68 survivors with over 275 emergency needs since the COVID shutdown. 

It’s tough going for these nonprofits, on the dollars-and-cents’ end of things, however. Charitable contributions nationwide have stumbled. As more Americans are out of work, fewer dollars flow to nonprofits.

One May 15 headline from MarketWatch read, “The share of Americans who give money to charity hits a 19-year low at a time when many need help.” The story was based on polling from Gallup about the dramatic decrease in donations from U.S. families to nonprofits, charities, and churches, due in large part to the coronavirus and its depression-like clamp on the economy.

What does this mean for our work?

It’s important to reiterate that it is too early to definitively say the impacts of COVID on trafficking.  It will be a while before we have data to work with.  Right now, the anti-trafficking community is doing the best it can to respond to the increased vulnerabilities created by this unprecedented situation.  

One of our major focuses as an organization is teaching parents and community members about online safety and trafficking prevention.  We hope that the tools on our website, our virtual conversations, and our written work will help give you the confidence to have discussions with the youth in your life about online safety.  We stand with our partners who are working with survivors and helping them stay out of trafficking.  We have felt the economic impact of COVID on our own work and we encourage you to donate if you are able.  

We love being a part of your communities and we know that together we can work to fight trafficking during this time.    

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