Human trafficking survivors at high risk during the pandemic

Updated: Aug. 13, 2020 at 5:34 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Calls to a 24-hour hotline for human trafficking survivors at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center are down 50-percent for the first half of 2020 after years of climbing.

Advocates believe it's all tied to the pandemic.

19 Investigates found they fear survivors may not be getting the help they need.

Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world.

Ohio has ranked as high as fifth among all states in total reported human trafficking cases.

“The more people are aware of trafficking, have an understanding, the more individuals are able to be identified,” said Teresa Stafford, Chief Advocacy Officer with the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.

She worries about the big dip in calls they’ve seen to their Project STAR hotline so far this year.

She said there are several reasons survivors are more vulnerable in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Even the racial, civil unrest that we see here in society, that we’re experiencing here in northeast Ohio, and the rise of unemployment. And I think it’s directly related to the fact that some of our social service agencies and our organizations that typically identify survivors of human trafficking are not as accessible today as they were pre-Covid,” Stafford said.

Recognizing the red flags takes training, but it can be harder to do with measures like social distancing in place, and many people staying at home.

So what are survivors battling?

“Even think about the fact that a lot of people have lost their jobs. So traffickers know that that’s a risk for individuals, so they plan on that risk. And then you have people that are not accessing health care because people are afraid to go inside of the health care institutions because of Covid,” Stafford said.

There has also been an increase in domestic violence, and those victims can become targets of human trafficking.

Survivors come from diverse backgrounds, from cities and suburbs and all walks of life.

Stafford said many may have mental health disorders or addictions and have come forward for help in the past, but weren't believed.

“Individuals are going to take an opportunity to abuse and misuse people, and this is a perfect opportunity unfortunately,” Stafford said.

Stafford said trafficking happens in plain sight.

And the more we understand and stop blaming victims, the better.

“A person who is trafficked is typically living in trauma every single day, every moment. And we have to change and shift our mindset on how we see those who are being trafficked,” Stafford said.

Project STAR

Project STAR is a 24-hour hotline staffed by trained trauma specialists.

Survivors have access to free counseling, shelter and many more resources.

The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is going to start a virtual training series for the community and professionals to identify trafficking survivors.

They expect to post more information on that training on their website next week.

You can call Project STAR at 855-431-7827.

You can access more resources to learn more about human trafficking or get help through the Ohio Department of Health at this link.

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