The pandemic is taking a toll on human trafficking victims, Tampa Bay advocates say

Traffickers are abandoning their victims, placing them at risk of getting sick and working online to recruit vulnerable teens.
Messages on Hillsborough Area Regional Transit bus shelters are intended to raise awareness of human trafficking. Local advocates say the pandemic is raising risks for trafficking victims.
Messages on Hillsborough Area Regional Transit bus shelters are intended to raise awareness of human trafficking. Local advocates say the pandemic is raising risks for trafficking victims. [ Hillsborough Area Regional Transit ]
Published May 26, 2020|Updated May 26, 2020

Rahab’s Daughters, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works to rescue human trafficking victims, started a Tampa chapter in January.

The group had planned to open a safe house and have operations in full-swing before next year’s Super Bowl, an event that typically causes a spike in trafficking, according to law enforcement officials and hospitality professionals. But the COVID-19 outbreak accelerated those efforts.

The organization recently posted a request for $10,000 on an online list of nonprofit needs curated by the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. The money would be used to set up a safe house, said Laurie Wisotsky, director of the new chapter.

“COVID has definitely made a huge impact on human trafficking,” she said.

The pandemic has changed how traffickers work in ways that are raising alarms among advocates, who say they are seeing more victims requesting help.

The reduced demand for prostitution has prompted some traffickers to abandon their victims, leaving them in unfamiliar locations with no means to live. At the same time, those still being pressed into prostitution are at risk for contracting the virus.

The outbreak also has hastened a push by many human traffickers to move their operations online, with pornography production and efforts on social media to recruit young victims.

While local law enforcement officials report no uptick in human trafficking activity, advocates say they have seen changes in their work that do not bode well for victims.

Rahab’s Daughters, which offers shelter and counseling, has rescued 105 women across the country since the pandemic began, Wisotsky said.

Related: RELATED: No easy answers as Tampa tackles illicit massage parlors

Major Geoffrey Harris, of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, said law enforcement has been working online and offline to track trafficking.

“We have detectives who continue to monitor and attempt to locate any believed victims of human trafficking,” he said. “There has not been a noticeable increase on sexual advertisement sites or increased reporting of possible victims in Hillsborough County.”

St. Petersburg Police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said the recent cancellation of the WrestleMania 36 event in Tampa prevented an anticipated spike.

Bill Losasso with the Florida Dream Center, a Lealman-based nonprofit that offers recovery programs for victims of trafficking, said it’s harder to fight the problem online.

“You used to have to kidnap a girl, but now it’s all mostly online,” he said. “You shut down one thing, and they can open another.”

More common platforms include Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and dating apps. Traffickers often create fake profiles, posing as teenagers or as modeling agencies or music producers wanting to collaborate, Wisotsky said. They seek out teens who rant about fights with parents or seem emotionally vulnerable in posts, she said.

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The grooming process, Wisotsky said, is similar to that of any predator and can take from a week to a year and a half.

“They’ll wait as long as they have to to reel people in,” she said. “They’re incredibly patient.”

Losasso said the average age girls enter trafficking is 12. The Dream Center currently has 14 women and girls as young as 6 in its program for survivors of sex trafficking, and a wait list of about 44 — a number Losasso called “staggering.” Florida ranks third nationally in the number of reported cases, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Related: RELATED: Does human trafficking happen here? Pinellas center helps victims as young as 6.

Jillian Penhale, director of the nonprofit Created, said her group has seen an increase in the number of women seeking help through its 24-hour hotline. Also, drop-in visits are up at the group’s center in Tampa.

Created currently houses 11 residents and works with about 79 women a week, Penhale said.

She said she’s concerned about the risk survivors face of falling back into trafficking as they lose employment and become financially vulnerable. Losasso said he has heard of this, too.

“(Losing a job) is not the same as everyone else,” he said. “People in this situation wake up and wonder why they don’t want to kill themselves.”

The Dream Center offers trauma counseling among other services, but some were put on hold due to social distancing measures.

Wisotsky, the Rahab’s Daughters director, said more people are isolated now and less likely to report possible instances of human trafficking. But when they do go out, they are often seen in grocery stores and airports.

She said signs for the public to look for include malnourishment, accompaniment by a partner who seems physically controlling or aggressive, a lack of eye contact and tattoos of dollar signs, diamonds, bar codes or crowns — all symbols of branding that traffickers use to mark their victims.

“Trafficking doesn’t stop during a pandemic,” Wisotsky said. “It just doesn’t stop.”