(The Center Square) – Human trafficking reports dramatically increased in 2020 in California during the state’s year-long shut down.
Agencies that track trafficking reports and help victims attributed the increase to vulnerable children not in school and susceptible to online predators, tech savvy traffickers, and a lack of housing for survivors and victims.
Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (Cast) says it saw a spike of 185 percent in urgent human trafficking cases last year, with many of the victims from Mexico and the Philippines. In July, the group announced its concerns when advocating for more state funding to combat the issue.
Since the beginning of last year, Cast reports that its costs to help provide basic necessities and housing for victims increased by 455% compared to the same time frame in 2019. Service providers have also been facing “an unprecedented shortfall of resources with an outsized demand for direct services,” Cast says.
During COVID-19, the number of survivors seeking shelter with Cast was nearly a third higher than normal, it reported. “100% of survivors who called our 24-hour emergency hotline during the pandemic were homeless. They were escaping both the traffickers and the pandemic,” Rebecca Amado-Sprigg, an associate director at Cast, said in a statement.
For over a year, the group had partnered with the City of Los Angeles to find private hotel rooms for victims.
Los Angeles is a main point of entry into the U.S. for sex trafficking. In 2018, well before the coronavirus hit, nearly one in 10 homeless individuals in California were sex or labor trafficked; roughly one in five homeless youth experienced some form trafficking, Cast reports.
In 2019, California reported the most human trafficking cases – 1,507 – to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, followed by Texas’ 1,080.
The legislature responded by allocating an additional $30 million in new grants over the next three years to fund service providers helping trafficked victims. The money is in addition to an existing $30 million allocated over the same time period. Groups working with victims argue the existing $10 million per year wasn’t enough to handle an escalated need.
The California Attorney General’s Office also launched two new anti-human trafficking teams to apprehend perpetrators and support survivors after increased labor and sexual exploitation had been reported statewide. The two anti-trafficking teams include 13 special agents and two crime analysts.
Before an infusion of man power and funds, law enforcement agents on heightened alert continued to thwart human traffickers last year. In early 2020, the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force’s “Operation Reclaim and Rebuild” initially arrested 450 people and rescued dozens of victims, including 13 children. Among them was a missing 15-year-old from Nevada.
The effort involved 100 federal, state and local law enforcement agents who rescued victims they discovered had been forced or tricked into sex work or other labor, authorities said.
NBC News 7 San Diego produced a seven-part investigative report last year on the rise in child sex trafficking during COVID-19 lockdowns, specifically in San Diego County.
Researchers interviewed found that the economic hardship from the shutdown “forced pimps and exploiters to turn to the internet as a source of cash.”
But economic turmoil, coupled with schools and other programs being shut down, resulted in victims having fewer places to turn to report exploitation and allowed fewer chances for abuse to be recognized, NBC News 7 reported.
Nationally, at the beginning of the state shutdowns in March 2020, the FBI had issued a warning to parents to be alert about sexual predators on the internet.
“Due to school closings as a result of COVID-19, children will potentially have an increased online presence and/or be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk,” the FBI warned. “Due to this newly developing environment, the FBI is seeking to warn parents, educators, caregivers, and children about the dangers of online sexual exploitation and signs of child abuse.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that online enticement incident reports increased from 19,174 in 2019 to 37,872 in 2020. CyberTipline reports increased over the same time period, from 16.9 million in 2019 to 21.75 million in 2020.
John Shehan, vice president of NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division, said, “In the first quarter of 2020, NCMEC became aware of predators openly discussing the pandemic as an opportunity to entice unsupervised children into producing sexually explicit material. At the same time, we experienced an explosion in reporting to our CyberTipline from both the public and electronic service providers, all while transitioning to a telework environment.”
“With both kids and adults spending more time online due to school closures and social distancing measures,” NCMEC says that it was “aware of instances where child predators are using the darknet to discuss this opportunity to entice children to produce sexually explicit material.
“Some child traffickers adjusted to the reluctance of buyers to meet in-person to engage in commercial sex,” it adds. “Some traffickers are now offering options for subscription-based services in which buyers pay to access online images and videos of the child.”