The COVID-19 pandemic has produced too many tragedies to tally, but here is one that does not get talked about enough: It has worsened conditions that leave children and youth especially vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, a human trafficking crime.
Human trafficking happens when a trafficker uses force, fraud or coercion to compel a person into providing labor, services, or commercial sexual acts against his or her will. When a minor is trafficked for commercial sex, it is considered a human trafficking crime, regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion. When a trafficker receives anything of monetary value in exchange for sexual contact with a minor, that minor has been trafficked. The majority of minors are trafficked by people they know.
Texas is leading a robust fight against trafficking, but we still have work to do. The Texas Legislature has an opportunity to strengthen and invest in services that the pandemic has, tragically, made even more necessary. Organizations in communities throughout Texas that already work to meet the basic needs of vulnerable children and youth can also, by meeting those needs, reduce the risk that a trafficker will target them.
Though human trafficking can happen to anyone, some youth are more vulnerable than others. Traffickers identify and use vulnerabilities like involvement with the child welfare system, mental health issues, and homelessness to create dependency. The widespread job losses over the last year, for example, have left many homeless, or on the brink of homelessness, creating unstable living conditions that can make youth more vulnerable to traffickers. And, importantly, the pandemic has reduced the number of foster families in the state, leaving fewer homes for vulnerable children and youth.
Children and youth are also spending more time online, which can make them more accessible to traffickers who target them there. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noted an increase from 2 million to 4.2 million reports of online exploitation between March and April 2020.
For those who are already being sexually exploited or forced to provide labor, the pandemic has made a terrible situation worse. They may have little opportunity for social distancing or protective equipment. Given the pandemic’s impact on economically distressed areas, individuals who are trafficked may live in places with higher rates of infection. Plus, some safety protocols can make it more difficult for health care workers, educators and others to screen for trafficking victims. And victims are less likely to adapt to new practices, such as visiting doctors virtually, that the pandemic has presented, thereby decreasing opportunities they’ll be identified.
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and fortunately, Texas has taken some key steps to prevent this crime. The Texas Center for Child and Family Studies, a supporting organization of Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, recently received a grant from Governor Abbott’s Public Safety Office to help community nonprofit organizations provide services supporting child and youth survivors of child sex trafficking, as well as those at-risk of being trafficked.
Now that the Legislature has begun its 140-day session, there is an opportunity — and an imperative — for legislators to make direct investments in services that will prevent more vulnerable children and youth from being targeted by traffickers. It’s also critical that they provide the support for the services geared toward helping trafficking survivors. When child- and family-serving organizations support vulnerable youth and their families, they build bonds and provide concrete resources in times of need that help lower a child’s risk of being trafficked. This comes through providing access to assistance with basic needs, parenting classes, foster and adoption, and mental health services, for example.
As we raise awareness of human trafficking and celebrate the state’s efforts to combat it, we should also recognize the painfully unique conditions of this pandemic. By prioritizing children and youth and helping to meet their basic needs, our legislators can make the state’s response to the crime of human trafficking even more meaningful.
By Katie Olse, chief executive officer of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, a network of mission-driven organizations serving children and families in Texas’ foster care and child welfare systems.