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Pandemic May Be Cloaking Sex Trafficking Cases in Hawaiʻi


A report called “Sex Trafficking in Hawai‘i” examines the scope and complexity of a problem for which data is hard to collect.

The report’s findings are disturbing enough, but it was conducted before the pandemic. People who support local survivors of sex trafficking fear the pandemic may be hiding further cases of exploitation.

Joey Keahiolalo, chief program officer at Child & Family Service, a local social service nonprofit, and one of the study’s authors, worries that restrictions resulting from the pandemic are hiding trafficking cases.

“Because of (the) stay-at-home environment, we don’t have schools watching and reporting as much,” she says. That makes it harder to detect red flags.

“I think once school gets back in session we’re going to see a flood of referrals.”


97 Survivors Surveyed

The study was a joint effort by Arizona State University, Child & Family Service and the Hawai‘i State Commission on the Status of Women.

As part of the report, people age 12 and up who receive services from Child & Family Service were asked to participate and 363 volunteered, covering every Hawaiian Island except Ni‘ihau and Lāna‘i. Minors needed the consent of a parent or guardian, and all were granted anonymity.

The survey identified 97 sex trafficking survivors – 27% of the study participants. Of those 97 survivors:

  • 64% are Native Hawaiian or part Native Hawaiian.
  • One-quarter of the survivors said they were first trafficked before the age of 18; of that group, the average age when they were first trafficked was 11. That is substantially younger than the national average age of 14.

  • 75% of victims identified as female, 23% as male, 1% as transgender and 1% as noncomforming.

  • Of all the survivors, 27% were coerced or forced to exchange sex for drugs; 25% in exchange for money; 25% in exchange for a place to stay.

  • 26% reported a family member as the sex trafficker; 25% reported a friend; 25% reported a boyfriend.

  • 18% reported that technology or social media was involved in their sex trafficking.

  • 69% experienced homelessness.

  • 66% of all the survivors reported experiencing four or more adverse childhood experiences. These experiences include physical or emotional abuse, sexual abuse, time in foster case, and running away from home. To download the report click here.


Pandemic’s Impact

The survey was based on a small sample: 363 respondents overall and 97 who reported being trafficked. It only surveyed people already known to Child & Family Service, whereas exploitation often occurs in private places and online, so the true extent of the problem is unclear.

The study defines human trafficking as “a crime that involves forcing, coercing, or enticing a person to provide labor or engage in exchanging sex for something of value.” It is only the third study ever in Hawai‘i on the problem.

It was released in January 2020, before the pandemic. Keahiolalo of Child & Family Service and others interviewed by Hawaii Business Magazine believe now, during the pandemic, is the time to amp up support and services for prevention rather than intervention. “Reach them before” any exploitation occurs, Keahiolalo says.

She says that for both youth and adult survivors, leaving a sex trafficking situation can be more difficult in a stay-at-home environment. With fewer outside interactions in their lives, survivors are even less likely to see people they feel they can trust to help them escape.

Abusers often isolate their victims even in normal circumstances. The pandemic makes it even less likely for the community to identify those in need, Keahiolalo says.


Increase in Crisis Calls

Jessica Muñoz is the founder and president of Ho‘ōla Nā Pua, a local nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of sex trafficking and supporting its survivors. She says isolation and increased time spent on the internet as a result of the pandemic could harm sex trafficking survivors and put other vulnerable people at risk. Indeed, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has reported a 300% increase in crisis calls originating from internet risks.

Muñoz says “traffickers don’t care about COVID. (They) have a captive audience with children online.”

She adds that people’s economic challenges resulting from the pandemic make people desperate to make ends meet, which makes them easier to exploit.

“Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you’re safe,” Muñoz says.

Farshad Talebi is the state’s human trafficking coordinator, a position recently created by Hawai‘i Attorney General Claire Connors in response to the report’s recommendations. Talebi says a person often needs to be able to financially support themselves to leave an abusive situation permanently. That usually means a steady job, which can be hard to come by during this recession.

Tammy asked to only be identified by her first name because she is an advocate and outreach coordinator at Ho‘ōla Nā Pua and needs anonymity to protect the confidentiality of her patients. She says survivors are encountering extra difficulty now accessing face-to-face therapy, the court system and other resources.

Tammy says trafficking court cases have been prolonged, which is dangerous to survivors, partly because it takes longer for restraining orders to be filed. And delays add financial stress to the survivor.

Talebi adds that law enforcement investigations have been significantly slowed down by COVID-19.


What Should Be Done

The study recommends its findings be used to develop more informed, Hawai‘i-based initiatives. Other recommendations include awareness training that is “victim-centered and trauma-informed,” clinical treatment interventions, sex trafficking-specific programs for adults and schools, and public policy that provides “funding support and services for adult and child victims of sex trafficking.”

Talebi also says a shift in strategy will help. “We need systemic change through more coordination,” he says. He plans to “supplement law enforcement by (expanding coordination) with social service providers and other state departments.” Talebi plans to emphasize awareness and deterrence over law enforcement. “You can’t necessarily arrest your way out of it,” he says.

Advocates for exploitation survivors also say an emphasis on prevention and a better public understanding of who is vulnerable will help.

Muñoz says she knows the pandemic has created many needs but she emphasizes the vulnerability of trafficking victims in particular.

“Our work is essential. … It is life or death for them. It cannot be considered an afterthought,” she says.


Need Help?
  • The state’s Child TraffickingHotline is (808) 832-1999 (O‘ahu) or (888) 398-1188 (Neighbor Islands).
  • Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.
  • Or call/text the Hoʻolā Nā Pua Helpline at (808) 435-9555. Hoʻolā Nā Pua can provide support and care coordination, and make referrals. For more information visit



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