To find out how the pandemic has impacted human trafficking, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with three experts:

-          Dr. Stephany Powell, Director of Law Enforcement Training and Survivor Services at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a nonprofit organization working to end sexual exploitation;

-          Kara Doan, the co-founder of Restoration61, a Chicago-area non-profit that provides services to victims of sex trafficking;

-          Commander James Davis of the Cook County, IL Sheriff’s Office.

For more information on this subject, see PERF’s recent report: How Local Police Can Combat the Global Problem of Human Trafficking: Collaboration, Training, Support for Victims, and Technology Are Keys to Success.


Key Takeaways

-- When the pandemic first hit, sex trafficking subsided in some areas. But as society has begun to reopen, traditional trafficking patterns have returned.

-- Online sex trafficking has changed during the pandemic. In addition to traditional meet-ups, trafficking victims are being forced into porn sites, webcams, and social media sites where they sell online sex for brief periods of time.

-- The pandemic has dramatically curtailed the services available to victims of human trafficking. Services such as shelters are especially important during the first 24 hours after a victim is recovered, but the lack of shelter space means that some victims have nowhere to go. Cook County has seen an increase in assaults on human trafficking victims.

-- As businesses that rely on forced labor had to shut down because of COVID-19, some victims were forced into sex trafficking or out onto the street. Restoration61, a service agency in Cook County, IL, saw a spike in calls from labor trafficking victims.

-- Law enforcement agencies have had to reassign personnel who focused on human trafficking to duties related to protests and COVID-19 testing sites. This has reduced the amount of proactive work that anti-trafficking units can engage in.

Dr. Stephany Powell, Director of Law Enforcement Training and Survivor Services, National Center on Sexual Exploitation

I retired after 30 years with the LAPD and left as the sergeant in charge of the Vice Unit. From there I ran Journey Out, which is a nonprofit in Los Angeles that helps adult victims of human trafficking. Now I recently started working at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.

I was at Journey Out when COVID first hit back in March. We immediately went out, and I was expecting not to see very many girls on our “track.” But our track was extremely busy, just like business as usual, and it has stayed that way. We hand out bags with information on COVID and other services. I handed out 30 or 40 bags within a 10-block radius.

We found that for some girls who were not on the street, their pimps had them webcamming.  And the LAPD saw an uptick in Internet activity.

During the protests, there was a need for the police department to put more bodies in the field, so some of the specialized units, including those dealing with prostitution, were shut down or minimized to work the demonstrations. Now things are back to normal and the Vice Units are doing the same things they were doing before COVID.

Chuck Wexler: Were the victims of human trafficking concerned about COVID?

Dr. Powell: Yes, they were. But a couple factors still pushed them out there. One was a pimp pushing them out there regardless of whether they wanted to or not. They knew the danger but had no choice, because they were afraid of getting beat up. And poverty is also a factor that pushes them out there.

We also had girls who were out of that life calling and asking for help with rent or food, because they did not want to have to go back out there. We started seeing an uptick in the need for direct services.

Wexler: Did victims’ services have to scale back their operations due to COVID?

Dr. Powell:  Many direct service providers who offer residential programs were not taking in new clients, even some that cater to youths. We had money coming in from the city that allowed us to place new clients starting at these programs in hotels for 14 days to quarantine. Then they would join the residential program.

Quite a few nonprofits were no longer doing street outreach, but Journey Out continued to do street outreach the entire time. We did it safely, but we felt we needed to continue the outreach. We gave out information about the Coronavirus, disposable thermometers, information about when they should seek medical attention, and hand sanitizer.


Kara Doan, Co-Founder, Restoration61

Initially all trafficking was down. Everything on the street, in hotels, and escort services were shut down. A lot of our girls tried to move to webcams, Snapchat, and other websites that aren’t necessarily sex-oriented, to bring in money. That went on until probably the end of July.

A little more than a month ago, we saw a shift, and girls headed back to hotels and there was an uptick in girls on the streets. They were on their usual sex websites, as well as trying to get clients through sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.

Wexler:  What impact did this have on victims’ services?

Ms. Doan:  A lot of our victims’ services providers initially shut down. If and when they reopened, they opened to about half capacity. So the help was cut in half, and there’s often no place for the girls to go.

We normally just deal with sex trafficking victims, but I have had a lot of calls about labor trafficking. With the job market shifting and a lot of the more vulnerable jobs temporarily closing, it has driven the girls who were in those positions either back to the street or in need of more services. And it shut down a lot of the businesses where labor trafficking victims worked. As everything closed up, those traffickers stopped housing and providing for their labor trafficking victims and just put them out on the street. We saw them go to shelters and end up at hospitals. The shelters and hospitals called us about them. I wouldn’t have known there were that many labor trafficking victims in the Chicago region if I wasn’t getting 5 to 10 calls about them every week.

There just aren’t as many services for victims. Early on, our phones got really quiet, and we were wondering where everyone had gone. In the last eight weeks we’ve started getting call after call. Finding placements and getting those victims the services they need has been really hard. A lot of girls are still with their traffickers or on the street, because they won’t go to a shelter. And the centers where we do placements and domestic violence shelters are full.

We build relationships with the women to meet them where they are. If they’re not ready to come in, we don’t force that. We bring services to them, and make sure they can access services in the community that are available. We make sure they know where the food banks are, where they can get counseling, and where they can get physical care. The girls are utilizing those, but a lot of them are waiting on the street until services open up.

We’ve seen more of the girls be assaulted during this time. And more of them than usual have been picked up on drug and theft charges. 


Commander James Davis, Cook County, IL Sheriff’s Office

When this pandemic first hit, we knew there was likely to be a decrease in sex trafficking victims on the streets. Because we are so victim-based, we created poster boards and cards in areas where we knew victims may be concentrated. I had my unit do surveillance to see if the numbers did go down, which they drastically did. Where there used to be 20 people walking on the street, there were two or three. We made contact with the remaining victims, told them about the dangers of COVID, and offered them help.

If there’s a john looking for a date, I think they’re going on the Internet rather than the street. We’ve conducted surveillance in the past month, and there’s increased activity compared to when COVID first started in the area where trafficking would occur. But I believe much of the trafficking has moved online.

At this time I’ve restricted my unit from going into massage parlors where there could be trafficking, due to concerns about the contact with my undercovers. But about three weeks ago, we started making dates online again and meeting with victims.

Wexler:  Did staffing the demonstrations impact your work?

Commander Davis:  We had to shut down. We went from being proactive to reactive, because we were given other duties, between the protests and COVID testing centers. We would still respond if someone like Kara called or if we received a tip from the hotlines, but for the most part we had to shut down.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.