The Red X Podcast presents a special panel episode to explore the effect of the Coronavirus Pandemic on human trafficking and the anti-trafficking community. Guests include Leanne McCallum from the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force, Melissa Rueschhoff who worked in Hawaii’s AG office as an analyst/special prosecutor in the ICAC unit (currently working with policy and is the legislative attorney for a state representative in Hawaii), and Nick Lembo coordinator for the Just Men Arizona/Epik Project and Shared Hope International board member.
This panel discussion focuses on how the Covid-19 pandemic and social isolation is impacting service providers, vulnerable populations, and demand. Melissa says that anti-trafficking groups in HI have all had to shift from face to face conversations to online communication for their main service providers.
Mentoring and education programs have gone online; instead of meeting in person or in groups discussions and check-ins have moved to online platforms to serve clients. Leanne also says that phones and online platforms are replacing client meetings. She says that social distancing has affected how clients are able to get to appointments and services. And, unfortunately some clients are not able to get housing at all. In order to protect victims from virus they’ve had to limit the number of clients they allow into shelters. One shelter in NOLA has had to make the difficult decision of only allowing victims under the age of 21 to be able to be housed in their shelter.
But what about demand? Nick explains that the EPIK Project was already working through online and phone platforms. A group of men cyberpatrol communities. In other words, they post decoy ads that men respond to and a cyberpatroler then interacts with that potential buyer and tries to educated them on the reality of what they are attempting to engage in. They have worked with law enforcement and survivors on the best ways to approach these men. Patrols typically employ 4-5 men. Information collected on these intercepted transactions are then reported to law enforcement. Nick says that a week prior to recording, buyers were still active in spite of growing national concerns about social distancing and spread of the virus.Nick was most interested in ads in Seattle, Washington the state in which was hard hit by the pandemic. He asked the men if they were concerned and they were not concerned about spread of virus. As Nick explains, “addictions don’t take holidays”. And although calls may have been down by about 10-15%, people who are home and have a lot of idle time are responding to decoy ads to purchase sex. Buyers are already taking risks and it seems that the threat of viral spread is not a deterrent.
Melissa has been in contact with Homeland Security. Her contact there also affirms that buyers and traffickers are still active and that law enforcement agents are still combatting them. However, they are expecting are a lot more children being at risk of child pornography and being lured from online sources now that children are home from school and on the internet. The longevity of social distancing measures gives perpetrators a chance to build a rapport with the victims through online communications—a main way of luring someone into trafficking. Victims often they believe they are in a relationship with the perpetrator. Law enforcement is also going online to intercept and combat these transactions.
Leanne says that isolation can lead to a variety of crimes. There’s an entire spectrum of abuse and violence that we may see because of the pandemic. Where there’s a lack of opportunity, people may turn to the gray economy. There will be employers who want to take advantage of people’s economic vulnerability. Demand is not just about commercial sex, it’s also about labor. We still need people to produce medical supplies, food, and other essential items. It’s possible some will use labor trafficking to produce those goods. Although Leanne says they haven’t seen direct reports of forced criminal behavior they are simply getting less intel from community partners and have a lessened law enforcement presence, which may explain why they aren’t seeing it. She says that they do see this pattern in times of natural disaster. When a tornado hits, they see undocumented people repairing roofs and not getting paid. After Catrina, forced labor was being used to repair infrastructure. People who are homeless or in the margins are at greater risk of being exploited by false promises of fair work. The Better Business Bureau is doing PSA’s about false businesses that are luring people in.
Exploitation may be happening online. Nick references an article in the NY Post says that camming is on the rise. Also, Pornhub is offering free premium subscription and that there is data linking porn use to being a sex buyer. Shared Hope International and Arizona Anti-trafficking network are trying get the word out about internet safety.
Melissa suggests some concrete steps parents can take to protect their youth from cyberexploitation:
- Check in with your children. What social media are they using? Make sure they are using privacy settings
- Sync your device to your child’s. What information is being sent and received?
- If youth own a cell phone, where did they get it and why are they using it?
- Are youth allowed to have the cell phone in their rooms? Turn phones over to their parents at night.
- Remind children never to give out their address, their name, their school name or other personal information.
- Remind children to never agree to friend or to meet someone in person they just met online.
- Remind children what’s appropriate to post online and not. Even one image can stay on the internet forever.
- Monitor apps. How did they meet the people they are talking to through them? Encourage youth to be cautious.
It’s difficult for children to understand how something they do now will affect them in the future, so it’s important for parents to be vigilant about how children are interacting online.
How could the pandemic and social isolation affect vulnerability to trafficking? Leanne says that human trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s a whole spectrum of abuse that can happen. Child abuse and domestic violence may increase for some as children and domestic partners may be in close proximity to their abusers. Also stress may exacerbate the abuse. Additionally, there are far fewer interactions for people to disclose their abuse or to find ways to get away. In terms of elder abuse, it isn’t possible for some family members to be in touch with their elderly families. Staff may be stressed and overworked due to staff shortages, which could lead to abuse or neglect of elderly clients; this also applies for residential institutions serving people with disabilities. Furthermore, elders may be at risk of financial exploitation.
Looking ahead, how can we plan to combat trafficking following the pandemic? Melissa says we need to look at our state laws. Are our laws strict enough for perpetrators? If not, we need to change those so we can prosecute buyers and traffickers. We also need to make sure that we are reaching out to the vulnerable. Leanne says that they are encouraging case managers to really address what basic needs clients may be saying they need. They are also suggesting for survivor services to integrate risk management into their care. And for providers themselves, how do they reduce vicarious and secondary trauma so they can continue to serve well. She says that service providers need to think about contingency plans and sustainability plans in case they fall ill and create transition plans for someone else to take over if they can no longer serve.
Leanne has created a toolkit for service providers. Nick adds that men can join the efforts in combatting trafficking by starting a men’s group to begin cyberpatrol. The work they do educates buyers, supports law enforcement, and identifies traffickers.