For those fighting to combat human trafficking, work doesn’t stop during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristen Bishop has her plate full as an employee at a small, family-owned grocery store and as a graduate intern at the University of Toledo’s Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute. She will also complete her master’s degree in social work in May.
Since the institute is a part of the university, employees are not allowed in the office because of Ohio’s stay-at-home order. But they are working from home and attempting to maintain their normal standards despite the transition.
Awareness of human trafficking is as important as ever, Bishop said. The economic strain brought on by the pandemic is making groceries, toiletries and other necessities harder to access for survivors of human trafficking in the Toledo area, and the strain is also putting more people in vulnerable positions.
“At this point that just means the community needs to be even more aware of the presence of trafficking,” Bishop said. Traffickers will exploit any kind of mental, emotional, physical or financial strain — so awareness is key right now.
The institute and people in the community have been reaching out to local survivors of human trafficking to make sure they can access necessities.
Criminals are not likely to heed the social distancing measures brought with COVID-19, particularly because traffickers profit greatly from their criminal activities, Bishop said.
Trafficking will continue and it may increase because of the economic strain — particularly labor trafficking — so law enforcement should remain just as vigilant.
“And they are,” Bishop said.
Pete Swartz is a detective with the Toledo Police Department, where officers are working through the pandemic. Swartz has worked against trafficking for more than 15 years.
It is hard to say if human trafficking will increase, but for the moment “nothing has changed,” he said. The level of reported cases has remained steady so far.
People should always be mindful of trafficking and its potential to happen online, as traffickers typically find victims through a recruitment process that could be over social networking, Swartz said.
The most common misconception he has seen regarding human trafficking is the idea that victims are abducted or just being pulled off the street.
In his career combating human trafficking, Swartz hasn’t seen a case in Toledo where someone was dragged off the street. It does happen, he added, but it is not typical.
Now, especially, guardians should be aware of whom their children talk to through digital communication platforms. With more families staying at home and children not going to school, digital methods of communication — video games, the internet and social media — are becoming more popular among children.
“So, having those conversations about online safety and setting parental controls on those platforms are essential right now because the kids are home and they have more time to be online,” Bishop said.
Video games have methods of communication and traffickers will use any platform to get in touch with potential victims. Many video games allow players to interact with other players online. The other players could be friends or strangers.
Traffickers will use mediums of communication that children find popular, and as video games become more advanced in their methods of communication, they become an opening for traffickers.
Swartz added that people should also be mindful of sexual predators online.
The public should continue practicing social distancing measures but still advocate for others and stay connected with family, friends and others in the community through phone calls, text messages, email and other indirect methods of contact, Bishop said.
“No matter what goes on in society, there’s always going to be a risk of trafficking,” Bishop said.
The best way to get help if someone suspects human trafficking is to report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline or local authorities.
“It’s important to just be aware of your surroundings and know what’s going on and if you see something, say something,” Swartz said. “It may be nothing or it may be something worthy of investigation.”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of Abby Shifley’s Honors College capstone project on human trafficking awareness. It will also be published on her website “The Shape of Trafficking" at the end of the semester.