Regional human trafficking task force continues to crack down on cases despite pandemic

Norfolk

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The region’s human trafficking task force had a busy year despite the COVID-19 pandemic putting obstacles in the way of cracking down on the crime.

The task force is headed into its fourth year of operation. It consists of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies as well as community partners to prosecute those responsible as well as help shelter victims of the crimes.

“Human trafficking is a global problem and, unfortunately, Virginia has its share of this issue,” said Jim Stitzel, who is the assistant special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations Norfolk branch.

Stitzel says the region’s international airport, access to major highways, and tourist destinations make it’s a prime location for human trafficking.

The crime is also described as one that’s hidden in plain sight. So, community awareness is needed to make sure people can spot what’s going on in their neighborhoods.

However, Stitzel says despite people being at home for most of 2020 and maybe not being able to be their eyes in public, case numbers have increased.

“Human trafficking didn’t stop because of the pandemic. It actually increased,” he said. “We always say human trafficking is a hidden crime with folks social distancing and stay at home more. Those in our society and communities that are the most vulnerable have been the most easily victimized.”

From January to September, there were 49 investigations. Eighteen of them occurred between the onset of the pandemic in April to September.

There were 16 arrests, five cases prosecuted, and 25 confirmed victims also from April to September.

HSI Norfolk says last year they also rescued four juveniles. Two cases involved parents trafficking their own children.

Katie Cooper, who is the anti-trafficking coordinator with the Samaritan House, says they helped shelter 49 human trafficking survivors last year. She believes the loss of income by some families may have contributed.

“Unfortunately, people make unfortunate decisions and move to traumatize their families and loved ones to do that,” she said about the trafficking cases.

Cooper says overall, the Samaritan House, which is a community partner with the regional task force and also helps survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and homelessness, saw an increase of people needing help across the board.

She believes that on top of the loss of income, drinking and drug abuse were exacerbated by the pandemic.

But, the Samaritan House was there to help. She says they changed a few things to make sure both employees and those who needed help stayed safe during the pandemic, such as incorporating more telehealth appointments and virtual alcohol/drug counseling meetings, providing PPE, providing access to COVID-19 testing, as well as spreading out families in shelters and hotels to keep safe.

“It feels good to know in this really chaotic time we’re coming to work every day and being hands-on and helping people we can and being a part of the solution in stressful times,” she said.

Law enforcement agencies also had to figure out ways to make sure they still had eyes out to help victims.

“In spite of COVID-19, we were able to conduct 30 outreach and training events to law enforcement, medical professionals and transportation industry employees. Those training and outreach efforts reached over 600 individuals. That was a big win for us,” he said.

It’s a big win the team hopes they can carry into 2021 to continue to crack down on a crime that’s in every community.

Stitzel says they’re going to continue to work to make sure those who are perpetrators end up behind bars and victims get the help they deserve by continuing to add to their regional task force and educating the public.

“We’re going to continue to do what works and we’ve proven through this task force that this model works,” he said.

If you are a victim or know anyone who is a victim, please call the Human Trafficking Task Force hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or the Samaritan House Crisis Hotline at 757-430-2120.

The Samaritan House is also always accepting monetary donations and donation items such as clothes, shoes and toiletries. Click here to donate or learn more.


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