COVID-19: Rise in Human Trafficking Cases

with Megan Cutter of the National Human Trafficking Hotline

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new risks and challenges for victims and survivors of trafficking – exacerbating vulnerabilities for many.

Megan Cutter, Director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a program operated by Polaris, sheds light on the current trend in trafficking cases and how the pandemic is impacting incident reporting.

Posted on:

January 4, 2021

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Americans are spending more time at home and online in the midst of the pandemic, but so are traffickers who prey on people's vulnerabilities. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Human-trafficking cases have risen since the onset of COVID-19 as criminals have adjusted their activities to the new normal created by the pandemic. Here to help us understand the scope of all of this is Megan Cutter. She is the director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline. It's a program operated by Polaris. And Megan, thank you so much for being here.

Cutter: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really happy to be here with you all today.

Anderson: So this is really about the isolation that all of us are feeling during the pandemic and the freedom that the Internet gives us to make us feel connected. Give us a sense of the volume of human trafficking pre-pandemic versus what we're dealing with now. What are you seeing?

Cutter: This is a really great question and something that, at Polaris, we've been really thinking a lot about since the start of the pandemic. And so what we've done is we've analyzed the number of calls, text messages, reports we received in April 2020 compared to the period just before the stay-at-home orders and then also the previous year. And what we found was an over 40% increase in crisis cases. So these are situations where people are reaching out for pretty immediate help for their own trafficking situations or on behalf of someone they know and then also requests for shelter nearly doubled. And so when we think about that and we think about the way that the pandemic has exacerbated vulnerabilities for lots of people around the world, and we think about how maybe the types of needs that people are reaching out about have really shifted. It demonstrates the impact of this crisis on not just society as a whole, but also on human-trafficking victims and survivors specifically.

Anderson: And we also have to think about the types of human trafficking. I mean, a lot of times, we think of sexual exploitation, but you're seeing this uptick across a variety of categories. Quickly list some of the things that we're talking about.

Cutter: So in addition to sex trafficking, another form of trafficking is labor trafficking, where someone is compelled to work against their will, they're unable to leave their job. And so that could be in any sector where work is happening. And we typically, through the National Human Trafficking Hotline, see this in sectors like agriculture, in domestic work, where someone is working and potentially living in someone else's home, providing child care or other forms of care for the family. We also see this in places like restaurants. So any sector where you know that labor is happening is a place where labor trafficking could potentially be happening. If the employees are in a situation where they're being exploited and if they were to try to leave that job, there would be some kind of negative consequence for themselves or for their loved ones.

Anderson: And so for a lot of this, because of the pandemic, the way these incidents are reported has also shifted. And just a note for our viewers. If you have an issue or you know someone who has an issue, you're seeing at the bottom of your screen the hotline, the text line and the website, those are all resources for you. But, Megan, talk to us a little bit about the way the fact that we're not going to school in the same way, we're not going to work in the same way, has impacted the way people are able to report these incidents.

Cutter: This is such an important question. And when we think about identifying human-trafficking situations and when we think about supporting victims and survivors, it's really important to think about people's community and their network of support. And I think for everyone during the pandemic, this has shifted and changed. And that means that people who maybe regularly had some type of access point for help, whether it was going to school every day or going to maybe semi-regular doctor's appointments, some of those behaviors have really shifted for many of us. We're going to school at home. We're putting off doctors' appointments that aren't urgent because of the crisis that's going on. And so that certainly has us concerned that those typical identification points of victims and survivors or where someone may realize someone needs help and offer the hotline number to them as a resource, we're certainly worried that that is happening less frequently.

Anderson: So how are you guys working to tackle all of this? I understand you have some pretty big partnerships with some major organizations.

Cutter: Absolutely. And partnerships are key to doing the work of the National Human Trafficking Hotline. And our goal is always to reflect in our system what is happening on the ground where that person who needs help is located. What are the best resources? Who are the law enforcement in that area who are trained in human trafficking and can support the victim in exiting their situation, if that's something they're looking for. And so we work with service providers across the country who are providing those services locally, like shelter, legal assistance. And then we also work with federal, state and local law enforcement who are trained in human trafficking and who are able to respond to situations of human trafficking that we report to them. And so those are really important collaborations and they're the way that we get our work done, which is extremely important.

Anderson: So what can we do on an individual level to either help raise awareness about this or help people who are having issues when it comes to trafficking?

Cutter: Another really important question and something that I think a lot of people are curious about, because this is just such a terrible crime and hearing about it, it makes people want to do something. And so at Polaris, what we talk about is that the two key elements to identifying a situation where you can help are proximity and context. So like we talked about a little bit earlier, situations where we're identifying and working with people in our communities who may need some type of help, and I think that learning about those elements of proximity and context and identifying places in your own work, in your own day to day, where you might be interacting with victims and survivors of human trafficking and then brainstorming safe ways to pass the hotline number along to them or see if they need help. All of that is really crucial and key in understanding how the crime works. And that's something that we have information about on our website and that really would encourage people to check out if they're interested in getting more involved and also in just learning more about how this crime really functions and works.

Anderson: And, Megan, as a reminder, if people are looking for more information, where can they go?

Cutter: Yes, our website is www.humantraffickinghotline. org. And then for Polaris' website, which is a little bit broader in terms of resources about human trafficking in general, that is;!!CQl3mcHX2A!UuPSIygn6V-XBdjNCgnORwE92hV2SrU8g61B_N8z9yeULAbsjBi37C4HIpBsDClw36M$ .

Anderson: Megan Cutter, the director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Thank you for being here.

Cutter: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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