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Sex Traffickers Target ‘Vulnerable’ Young Girls During COVID-19: Police


Internet-savvy pimps are using social media to recruit young girls who have been left dislocated or economically vulnerable by the pandemic, according to a New York City detective.

Lt. Amy Caponga of the New York Police Department (NYPD) sex trafficking team says social media is also being used to control the girls’ movements once they’ve been trafficked, and to exploit mobile payment services like Venmo to get the money.

One impact of their broadening operations since the onset of COVID-19: many hotels and motels in the New York City area, once filled with tourists, have become sites for prostitution, Lt. Caponga told a recent webinar organized by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“They are targeting the most vulnerable: the ones in foster care, group homes, the homeless,” she said.

The young women are enticed with expensive clothes and accessories and cellphones, she said.

The webinar, “The Landscape of the Criminal Justice System and Sex Trafficking: Centering Marginalized Voices,” was the first in a series held by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, the John Jay Student Council, the Pre-Law Institute, the John Jay Office of External Affairs, and the John Jay Psychology Department.

“Prostitution presents a complex nexus,” said Anila Duro, adjunct professor and doctoral candidate at John Jay College.

Duro and other panelists said U.S. law enforcement attitudes towards the young women enmeshed in prostitution needed to change.

“They need to be treated as victims, not as criminals,” said Tonya Stafford, a human trafficking survivor and founder of It’s Going to Be OK, a nonprofit group campaigning against trafficking

Research shows that the relationship between police and women victimized by human trafficking has been primarily negative and even violent, said Duro.

Too often, police and prosecutors fail to perceive that the girls and women did not legally consent to sex trafficking, the panelists say. Stafford cited one example of a nine-year-old girl trafficked by her impoverished parents, who was nonetheless arrested by police.

“Sex trafficking victims fear the police,” said Duro.

Instead of blaming the women, “the way forward is to understand the relationships and come together,” Duro said.

Lt. Caponga said New York police are now receiving training on how to spot human trafficking victims.

The John Jay series brings together thought leaders to discuss the current state of the criminal justice system and trafficking, open a conversation among survivors, academics, and practitioners, and lay the foundation for bridging research, practice, and policy to reflect the experiences of survivors.

“In the past, conversations about domestic sex trafficking have centered on white, heteronormative voices,” said the panelist statement.

“Recently, jurisdictions around the country have reported a disproportionate number of Black and Brown survivors.”

More information on the series can be found here.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.


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