Law enforcement agencies and those who work with teenagers fear that the COVID-19 pandemic has left more young people vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation or human trafficking.
Human trafficking is when one person uses violence, fraud, or coercion to compel another person to engage in work, service, or commercial sexual activity against their will. According to the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, if a minor is trafficked for commercial sex, it will be considered a crime of human trafficking regardless of violence, fraud, or coercion.
If a trafficker receives some monetary value in exchange for sexual contact with a minor, that minor has been trafficked.
When many people think of human trafficking, they think of a stranger grabbing someone, but often it is about someone the victim knows.
“What we are seeing here are people who are in a difficult situation and confusing themselves with those who are taking advantage of them. They are being offered drugs, shelter or something in exchange for sexual favors,” said Shawn Vaughn, Texarkana spokesman Texas Police Department.
Texarkana Arkansas Police Department detective Kayla Berry defines local commerce as people who “use someone who is in a bad situation, someone who needs money.”
Often the young person is being exploited by someone he knows.
In 2019, Berry arrested a woman for trafficking in human beings, encouraged prostitution, and allowed the abuse of a minor.
The 39-year-old suspect allegedly relocated a 17-year-old relative from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Texarkana because the girl was implicated in prostitution in that city following a possible affidavit. The suspect allegedly allowed the girl to advertise prostitution on the skipthegames.com website while the two were living in a hotel room on State Line Avenue in Texarkana, Arkansas.
The girl was reportedly paid for four to seven sexual encounters with adult men a day.
The suspect allegedly collected some of the money the teen received for prostitution.
“She used them and worked from the hotel,” said Berry.
There are probably more local human trafficking cases than police know because some people are reluctant to come forward, Berry said.
The Texas Center for Child and Family Studies, a support organization of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, recently received a grant from the Public Safety Bureau from Governor Greg Abbott to help nonprofits provide services to assist child trafficking survivors To help children and young people and those at risk of human trafficking.
Traffickers identify and use vulnerabilities such as child support participation, mental health problems and homelessness to create addictions.
For example, the widespread job losses over the past year have left many homeless or on the verge of homelessness, creating unstable living conditions that can make young people more vulnerable to trafficking.
Children and teenagers also spend more time online, which makes them more accessible to traffickers they approach there. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children saw an increase from 2 million to 4.2 million reports of online exploitation between March and April 2020.
Berry recommends parents and guardians monitor their child’s online access.
“In these cases, the perpetrator is right in your home, on your computer or over the phone,” she said.
Texarkana Against Trafficking is a local group promoting human trafficking awareness and sharing resources to stop it.
Lauren Booker of Texarkana started the group after seeing signs in the bathrooms of gas stations on her trip to Florida. The signs provided numbers that could be called if someone saw something suspicious about human trafficking or if someone was a victim of human trafficking.
Booker hopes people will know the signs of someone being traded and that if they see anything suspicious, they will call the helpline.
She is also concerned about the effects of COVID-19.
“Victims of human trafficking are now at higher risk because of some resource constraints. It’s also harder to spot as people are instructed in public to wear masks and stay three feet apart. It’s hard to say whether someone is in need.
I’m just encouraging the public to keep an eye out and see if anyone needs help, “Booker said.” My favorite quote is, “When you see something, say something.” You could save someone’s life. “
(The human trafficking hotline number is 1-888-373-7888.)