COVID-19 stretches resources for human trafficking survivors

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Terri Gooley, a resource coordinator in the New York State Human Trafficking Intervention Court, remembers meeting a 17-year-old trafficking survivor. Someone the girl had trusted, a friend of her mother’s, gave her heroin for the first time during a trip to Syracuse in 2015. She developed a substance use disorder, and the mother’s friend introduced her to online sex work to support it.

Now 22, the woman is still experiencing substance use disorder, and the website she uses for sex work is still active. It’s Gooley’s job to help her and other survivors of human trafficking secure food stamps, personal protective equipment, drug treatment and housing. But the coronavirus pandemic has made those tasks more difficult. 

Though it’s unclear how COVID-19 has affected the number of people being trafficked in the Syracuse area, it has affected some of the factors that contribute to human trafficking — such as domestic abuse, the availability of treatment programs and the frequency of large gatherings. 

The pandemic, which has increased social isolation and forced people to depend heavily on online relationships, has also made it harder for case workers and court officials to connect with survivors and help them access vital resources.

Human trafficking in 2020

Syracuse is unique when it comes to human trafficking because of the number of large events in the city that make sex work more profitable. Syracuse University sports games and the New York State Fair draw tens of thousands of people to the area each year.

In 2015, local and federal law enforcement arrested 18 people suspected of engaging in sex work at the New York State Fair and 11 people accused of profiting from it.

The number of people traveling for major events has gone down during the pandemic, but experts don’t know if the rate of human trafficking has followed suit. 

The McMahon Ryan Child Advocacy Center, an Onondaga County nonprofit that connects survivors of child abuse to health and educational services, saw 130 child human trafficking referrals in 2020, an increase from 109 the year prior, according to Erin Bates, deputy director of the center. 

The referrals are a combination of new cases and cases that carried over from the previous year. In 2021, 64 of the referrals carried over from 2020, the most the center has seen since it started tracking cases in 2014. Some of the cases have been open for multiple years, and others have been closed, as the children involved “age out” of the system.

Since March, fewer people have been arrested and referred to the Human Trafficking Intervention Court, Gooley said. But survivors who need money or drugs continue to sell sex online out of necessity, giving traffickers control over where to traffic someone and how the money is transferred.

Factors that lead to trafficking, such as trauma, have also been on the rise amid the pandemic

Since the start of the pandemic, Vera House — a local nonprofit that helps trafficking survivors access public assistance, achieve financial stability and recognize signs of abuse — has received three times more domestic violence referrals than it did in 2019, largely because there are fewer places for survivors of abuse to go, said JoAnna Brezee, an advocacy case manager at Vera House.

Sometimes, that domestic violence can lead to human trafficking, Brezee said.

Children are also more vulnerable to traffickers now because they’re spending more time online due to the pandemic, Bates said. 

The internet is an easy place for traffickers to exploit children, Bates said. Children are able to talk to or send photos to whomever they meet online, and traffickers under an assumed identity may build trust with children and push them to send explicit material or even come and meet them.

“Now you’re talking double the screen time and double the vulnerability, and traffickers are always lurking,” Bates said. “They’re aware that more kids are online more than they ever have been.”

Another reason human trafficking referrals could be on the rise in the county is an increase in awareness about the issue. Though trafficking hasn’t necessarily become more or less prevalent, people are increasingly able to identify and report it, said Seth Kurzban, a clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California. 

Causes of trafficking 

Traffickers often exploit trauma, one of the root causes of trafficking, to take advantage of children. Substance use disorders are also frequently involved. 

“If trauma is not handled appropriately, an individual can develop their own coping mechanisms,” Bates said. “Generally, people with addiction habits stem from some sort of incident. Whether it be an emotional or physical event, something occurred that made them want to feel okay.”

Almost every case that appears in the New York Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Onondaga County involves severe domestic, sexual or emotional abuse, said Ted Limpert, the court’s presiding judge. Through fraud, force and coercion, traffickers identify and recruit people and often get them addicted to drugs, he said. 

“A lot of them need drug treatment,” Limpert said. “Probably 80% we send to an in-patient treatment facility to try to get them off of drugs so they feel like they can break a bond with a trafficker.”

The solution to many human trafficking cases is robust drug treatment systems, Kurzban said. Though some people are reluctant to use medication to treat substance use disorder, states need to be willing to implement medically-assisted treatment options to alleviate street drug dependency, he said. 

Some people can’t leave and go anywhere, and they’re still in the same house with their abuser

JoAnna Brezee, an advocacy case manager at Vera House

“There’s a difference between doctor-administered methadone and heroin,” Kurzban said. “Ideally, we want to have services that are non-judgemental, that are comprehensive, that provide for trauma, substance abuse and mental health.”

But not every human trafficking case involves drugs. Bates said about 90% of child human trafficking cases in her office start with sexual abuse at a young age, especially in foster care and child welfare systems.

“We know that, within our county and across the nation, kids who are involved in those systems are exponentially more at risk to become vulnerable,” she said.

In some states, foster care offers cash incentives. As a result, children are often raised then neglected, which can lead to homelessness or substance use disorder once they age out of the system.

“These pimps and traffickers aren’t setting it up to look like (sexual abuse) to these kids,” Bates said. “They’re setting it up to look like they’re going to live this glamorous lifestyle and say, ‘I’m going to take care of you, you can have a new phone, you can have new clothes, I’ll take you out to eat.’ They negate the sex and exploitation piece completely.”

Challenges connecting

The Human Trafficking Intervention Court has lost track of some of its participants amid the pandemic, Limpert said. Case workers in the court have been mailing letters and making phone calls to try to contact them instead of issuing warrants for arrest — a strategy the court uses to get survivors into programs to avoid sentencing for sex work.

Limpert, Vera House and survivors used to organize mock court dates for trafficking survivors — a way to safely separate them from their traffickers and transport them to confidential shelter locations. But they can no longer pursue this tactic because of the pandemic, Brezee said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the state gave grants to court resource coordinators to distribute cell phones to their clients, making it easier for social workers to connect with people who enter the court, Gooley said. 

The strategy allows survivors to contact someone in case of emergencies or to ask about finding resources, but it has been harder to keep in contact with new referrals who are hesitant to open up about their experiences over the phone, Gooley said. 

“Women that I already had a connection with and trust me, I have now been able to reach out to them and talk on weekends if I have to,” Gooley said. “But for anybody who’s brand-new, who doesn’t know me at all, it is very hard to make that connection.”

Vera House has been able to meet with more clients throughout the pandemic because virtual meetings make it easier for people to meet on their own time, Brezee said. But in some cases, Vera House has had to distribute phones and contact clients through text instead of through virtual meetings. For clients still living in an abusive environment, a video call may not be a safe option. 

“Some people can’t leave and go anywhere, and they’re still in the same house with their abuser, so they don’t have a safe place to talk with us,” Brezee said. 

These difficulties aren’t limited to Onondaga County or even the state. Support programs across the country are struggling to reach human trafficking survirors, Kurzban said. Agencies that provide mental health care or substance use disorder treatment have cut back in-person outreach, which could have an impact on the effectiveness of long-term treatment solutions.

Before the pandemic, Brezee and Gooley started a joint group program for trafficking survivors called “Strength to Grow.” The program, which teaches survivors about mental health, coping mechanisms and how to recognize abuse, had to shut down its in-person programming because of the pandemic. 

Though Brezee and Gooley began offering the program virtually on Zoom, Gooley said that very few people who enrolled felt comfortable enough to talk about their experiences without in-person connections, which can’t be replicated. 

“Here we have these men and women on the streets involved in this type of lifestyle, and we’re asking them to start brand-new with some counselor they’ve never met and share their life,” Gooley said. “It’s not the same for people.”

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