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Legal experts say pandemic has led to further spike in internet-driven child trafficking

From left top left, Lucas Aisenberg, Edward Gallagher, Jennifer Hill and Torrence White, present on the “Human Trafficking 101” panel.

May 03, 2023 — Government and legal experts stressed prevention and education as weapons to fight the increase in child trafficking. More than 350 attended the “Human Trafficking 101: Understanding Human Trafficking of Children,” online event organized by the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Clinic.

The first panel moderated by Lucas Aisenberg, UH Law Center Clinical Supervising Attorney included Edward Gallagher, UHLC adjunct professor, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and former FBI agent; Jennifer Hill, Assistant Executive Director of the Children's Assessment Center; and Torrence White, Supervisory Special Agent of the Crimes Against Children & Human Trafficking Unit of the FBI Houston.

The discussion began by defining human trafficking.

Gallagher explained human trafficking is “violating the civil rights. It's degrading the human dignity of a person, and the type of crime can either be by forced labor requiring the services of another against their will, or you have what is known as commercial sex trafficking that is not just sexual assault. It's to earn money or something of value off causing this person to engage in sexual conduct.”

Hill said the number of child sex trafficking cases jumped dramatically in 2022. She shared from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children which noted more than 25,000 children were reported missing last year.

“One in 6 of those children were likely victims of child sex trafficking,” said Hill. In addition, “27% of sex trafficking cases reported were instances of familial trafficking. So, they were trafficked by a family member in some way.”

The numbers are likely higher “because so much of this kind of domestic violence and sexual abuse in general are underreported,” Hill noted.

During the pandemic, online forms of sex trafficking rose significantly.

“They jumped more than 45%, which is a lot,” Hill added. “There are more perpetrators at home, and there are obviously more children that have been online during that time.”

“It's not a white van driving up anymore, snatching a child,” said White. “The biggest factor I see now is the internet” with perpetrators having the “ability to reach out to so many people at one time where the sale of commercial sex can be found 24/7, 365.”

The panelists explained that traffickers can lure, coerce, and force children into trafficking through online contact.

“It used to be that you were worried somebody would come to your house, but now they have handheld devices where people have direct access to children on apps,” said Hill.

According to NCMEC, between 2010 – 2015, there was an 846% increase in the child sex exploitation.

“That is before we were all stuck at home and had access to so many devices,” said Hill. “It is terrible to know that there is so much of it going on.”

The panelists emphasized the need for a collective effort to combat human trafficking, with law enforcement, the private sector, and nonprofit organizations working together.

They also highlighted the importance of education and prevention.

“We always encourage parents to be involved in their children's lives. Ask questions, ask what they're doing on the Internet. Look at the video games,” White said. “Understand any avenue that the perpetrator has to engage with the child.”

The panelists said it takes a collective, coordinated effort from law enforcement, the private sector and nonprofit organizations to fight trafficking, adding the need for the community to get involved.

“We need information from the public. If you see something, say something. The public is our eyes and ears out there because we can’t be everywhere,” White said.

“Once this happens to a child, we can’t ever undo it,” Hill said. “I think that prevention and education is really the key to stopping this.”

Speakers in the second panel were Parker Sheffy, UH Law Center Clinical Supervising Attorney, Samantha Del Bosque, Supervising Attorney at Tahirih Justice Center, and Kim Leo, Assistant US Attorney.

For a full recording of the presentation, click here.

If you suspect human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Text 233733. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 200 languages.

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