A year of more people relying on technology to stay connected may have brought more opportunities for online predators to target potential victims.
| Palm Beach Post
A year of shelter-in-place orders, school closures and more people relying on technology to stay connected also has brought more opportunities for online predators to target potential victims, authorities warn.
Palm Beach County saw an increase in reports of human trafficking in 2020, even as other types of crimes declined in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg told The Palm Beach Post.
Aronberg did not speak to specific numbers for the county, noting that his office learned of the uptick in calls to the human-trafficking hotline through informal conversations with victims-services advocates.
Human trafficking special report: Two years, 30 arrests, 12 convictions: A task force’s track record
The Polaris Project, which oversees calls to the national human trafficking hotline, reported a similar trend across the U.S. Crisis calls to its hotline increased by more 40 percent in the weeks after many states first imposed shelter-in-place orders, the organization said.
State and federal law defines human trafficking as soliciting, recruiting, harboring, transporting or otherwise obtaining another person through force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of labor, domestic servitude or sexual exploitation.
Since at least 2015, Florida consistently has ranked third in the number of reported human trafficking cases, behind only California and Texas the two states with larger populations.
More online: Behind closed doors: Hotels, motels emerge as human-trafficking sites
Polaris did not directly attribute the increase to the pandemic, but officials have said the public-health crisis has heightened factors that make human-trafficking victims vulnerable.
“People are at risk because they have these needs that might be (used) by traffickers in terms of having a safe place to stay. A lot of people are out of a job,” said Ayan Ahmed, a spokeswoman for Polaris. “We are concerned what impact that would have on making more people vulnerable to trafficking.”
Aronberg said those of school age have been of particular concern for local officials as students spent have more time learning remotely this year because of the closure of school campuses. Assistant State Attorney Brianna Coakley of the Special Victims Unit and a member the Human Trafficking Task Force, said that while certain crimes associated with trafficking, such as prostitution, decreased when stay at home orders went into effect, there were more reports of internet crimes against children.
“In-person street crimes have decreased because of COVID, because fewer people are congregating on the streets and fewer events are taking place,” Aronberg said. “But at the same time, as more young people retreat to their computers at home, they are being targeted by human traffickers. …
“A lot of the grooming that goes on occurs inside your own home, where your child is on Facebook or other social-media sites and comes into contact with someone who has nefarious intentions.”
More online: Human trafficking probe’s focus: Target the johns
One such cases took place in June. Palm Beach County authorities arrested a Memphis man, alleging he exploited a local teen he met online, selling her for sex in various states, including Florida.
Authorities arrested Derrion Kirby after a teen staying in a suburban West Palm Beach hotel told them she was a victim of human trafficking.
The teen, who had just recently finished high school, told investigators she met Kirby and his girlfriend on a social-media media page and was invited to travel with the couple. The case remains in the court system with Kirby still in jail and scheduled for a hearing Jan. 12.
The Polaris Project released its study this summer. It surveyed the number of crisis cases reported to its national hotline in the 30 days prior to March 15, when some states had just begun issuing shelter-in-place orders, and compared it to the reports made during the 30 days in April, when several states, including Florida, imposed restrictions.
A crisis case is one in which someone needs assistance such as shelter, transportation or law-enforcement intervention, typically within 24 hours.
According to the Polaris study, there were about 60 crisis cases reported from Feb. 14 to March 15. During April, there were 90.
Cases reported to the hotlines are not always referred to law enforcement. With the exception of situations involving a child or where there is an emergency, the choice of whether to involve law enforcement largely is left to the victim, Ahmed said.
More online: Women often trap girls, other women into human trafficking
Eight people in Palm Beach County have been arrested on state charges for human trafficking this year, matching the total for pre-pandemic 2019. Palm Beach County authorities have made nearly 40 arrests for human trafficking since its human trafficking task force formed in 2017.
The task force, which is made up of staff from the State Attorney’s Office and from local and federal law-enforcement agencies, received a federal grant that was renewed in October 2019.
“Part of the success of the task force is to increase awareness of human trafficking in our community,” Aronberg said.
“When you increase awareness, it creates many additional pairs of eyes to help us root it out. This is the kind of thing that goes on in plain sight, and when people are out there reporting it, they’re also helping to prevent it.”