COLUMBUS, Ohio — January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and advocates in Ohio say COVID-19 has made awareness more important than ever.
Amy LaGesse, project coordinator for FOCUS on Runaways, and a board member of Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, has worked for years in the Toledo area on the issue, and said the pandemic has not necessarily increased incidents, but better disguised them more as people spend more time at home.
"Traffickers are not snatching and grabbing," LaGesse explained. "They are making friends with kids online; they're playing games with them. They are absolutely thrilled to see us more online."
Raven Cruz Loaiza, day one advocacy coordinator for Allen County Crime Victim's Services, added fewer victim referrals are coming from juvenile courts and other community partners.
"Mental-health providers, physicians; a lot of them are doing virtual appointments, or over the phone," Loaiza outlined. "Well, you can't always do a complete assessment, so out of sight, out of mind."
In Ohio, youths who are homeless or who run away from home are most at risk for sex trafficking, followed by those who use drugs or alcohol.
Other vulnerable groups include LGBTQ individuals, migrant farmworkers and those with a developmental or intellectual disability.
Loaiza said outreach to immigrant victims of trafficking, who are already in the shadows, is also a challenge.
"Getting them in for appointments, noticing those red flags, then you've got political rhetoric and then you've got language barriers," Loaiza observed. "So those have increased people's vulnerabilities."
LaGesse added engaging with survivors on a personal level is crucial in order to support them. But those connections are difficult now because they're over the phone or online, instead of face-to-face.
"And you're talking about someone who has been traumatized, and through terrible things and now you're going to say, 'Hi, I'm Amy. How can I help you today?' It's very hard to build a relationship," LaGesse stated.
Because it occurs behind closed doors, quantifying the scope of human trafficking is difficult. However, from a legal perspective, a report ranked Ohio 14th in the U.S. in 2019 for federal human trafficking convictions.