ST. CLOUD — As COVID-19 continues to spread in Minnesota, local organizations have altered services to focus on the challenges of preventing sex trafficking and exploitation, all while still providing resources to survivors.
As isolation and the reliance on technology during COVID-19 has heightened risks for exploitation, there has also been an increase in online solicitation, according to Kate LePage, East Central Minnesota Safe Harbor Regional Navigator.
“We expected with those things to see an increase in exploitation or trafficking, or at least online solicitation,” LePage said.
Many of the vulnerabilities that are common with the population who are victimized by trafficking have been increased with COVID-19, such as forced isolation and increased access online.
According to LePage, based on work and conversations with partners in law enforcement, cases for internet crimes against children and cyber tips were impacted by COVID-19 in 2020.
“They talk about … this really extreme increase in cases that they’ve seen in 2020,” LePage said.
LePage covers 11 counties in the East Central Minnesota area through a grant held by Lutheran Social Services, which offers 24/7 response to trafficking and exploitation.
As a navigator, she provides consults, referrals, prevention education, training to community and professional partners and offers technical assistance. The counties include Aitkin, Todd, Crow Wing, Morrison, Pine, Mille Lacs, Kanabec, Stearns, Sherburne, Benton and Wright counties.
In Minnesota, the basic definition of trafficking involves three people: the trafficker, victim and buyer, according to LePage.
There is a false idea that an abduction needs to happen to qualify as trafficking, but there are many different situations that can qualify.
“This business has shifted and molded as it’s needed to,” LePage said, noting a shift happened when backpage.com, a site known for selling sex, was shutdown in 2018. But the shutdown didn’t cause trafficking or exploitation to stop.
Online, somebody might have a photo or video that was sold. People may also be trafficked in person while the grooming happened online.
“I think that’s similar with this … COVID happened, and people weren’t leaving their houses much,” LePage said. “Exploitation and trafficking and grooming did not stop. It just adapted.”
The online piece is a big part of the issue, according to LePage, whether that is photos being exchanged and distributed or blackmail to meet someone in person.
“We have some of these things that are directing us,” LePage said, “that yes, it has impacted trafficking and exploitation.”
At Terebinth Refuge, which offers women 18 and older a way out of sex trafficking and exploitation, Director Cece Terlouw said the number of calls to their crisis line after COVID-19 struck was lower than normal.
“We thought there would be an increase,” Terlouw said. Calls to the crisis center began picking up again in the late summer, she said, but overall the trend tended to be a little lower.
Terlouw said what she understood from people in the field is that some of these women were really trapped with their abusers and traffickers, and that online pornography increased.
Women were likely being abused while trapped with their traffickers, Terlouw said. “I know that it really was, for many women, probably even worse because maybe they couldn’t get away or get that opportunity to be out and about for a while.”
Another local organization helping survivors of sexual violence, the Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center, saw around average requests for services for survivors of sex trafficking last year, according to Executive Director Peggy La Due.
But for survivors of all types of sexual violence, COVID-19 changed what people are struggling with, La Due said. She said she believes it has also increased the severity of those issues.
The pandemic has left many people feeling out of control or powerless, La Due said, which is trigger for past trauma.
“We have had a lot more people reach out for services,” according to La Due.
How to talk about it
And with the increase in online solicitation, according to LePage, requests for presentations on internet safety and prevention have increased, too.
Telling youth to avoid the internet will not work, LePage said, so the best way to speak to them about it is to focus on harm reduction — ways that they can interact online safely.
“Really just opening it up to more of an honest conversation and dialogue so that it’s not as authoritative,” LePage said, “so that if something does happen … they feel safe coming forward and talking to that adult in their life.”
LePage mentioned parents can use monitoring apps to keep an eye on kids’ locations if they are worried, as well as apps that monitor online activity and parental controls.
Caregivers may also create a contract with youth regarding online use, such as not allowing kids to have phones in their bedrooms at night.
La Due has also seen requests from schools regarding internet safety, where the center has provided training to students from an educational and safety standpoint.
Going forward, La Due said she hopes the center will be able to return to socially distanced, in-person training at schools.
In March, services for trafficking survivors had to shift amid shutdowns and restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
At Terebinth Refuge, the shelter was unable to accept residents for six weeks, said Terlouw.
The organization later obtained grants to help with costs related to COVID-19, which included housing women who were seeking shelter in a hotel to ensure COVID-19 would not be potentially brought into the shelter.
Going forward, the organization has worked to use a second home nearby for housing needs during COVID-19.
The increase of service requests at the Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center has also changed how some are being offered.
The center is offering two virtual support groups, with 10-15 people each, and allows some clients to come to the center safely for in-person services.
According to La Due, this is the first year in around a decade that the center has offered two support groups at the same time.
La Due also estimates the center has almost quadrupled its calls for welfare checks, while seeing an increase in needs for basic items.
With a small grant from the local Minnesota United Way, La Due said, the center was able to to help purchase items such as tablets and internet service for survivors who needed access to resources.
“I honestly can say, I’ve never seen that small amount of money do so much benefit for clients,” according to La Due.
“I think that’s really important to note — that we’ve adapted as well — but we’re still out here able to serve youth and adults,” LePage said.
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