The number of tips law enforcement has received about adults making online sexual solicitations toward children has doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Mexico, an expert on human trafficking told a legislative committee Thursday.
“We’ve seen a huge increase [in tips] over the past couple of years and specifically during the pandemic when schools began sending children home,” Anthony Maez, a special agent for the state Attorney General’s Office, told members of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee.
He said the amount of cyber tips to his agency has doubled from 100 to 200 per month “because more children have access to [computer] devices. That’s definitely a concern for us because those children are being enticed.”
Maez made his comments during an afternoon committee session on the issue of human trafficking in New Mexico.
Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said after the hearing that Maez’s comments serve as a “red flag for schools to get involved and get some training. Our school boards and superintendents need to be aware of it as well and figure out how to best get the information out to parents so they are aware that it is a concern.”
The mother of two children, including a 6-year-old who is engaged in distance learning, Lujan said the need for students to have internet access to learn from home “makes them more vulnerable, especially when you get to the junior and high school age.
“The potential for solicitation is definitely of concern to me.”
Maez said his office will conduct those trainings to educate school personnel if schools request it.
Maez also said the Attorney General’s Office is getting more cyber tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Between August 2019 and August 2020, he said, investigators received nearly 2,200 of those tips, including tips of 111 children being enticed by adults, 14 about adults planning to meet a child and seven tips about child prostitution.
The vast majority were regarding child pornography being created, distributed or possessed in the state, he said.
Human trafficking is a crime in which traffickers force their victims to work or engage in sex acts for profit. According to the 2019 Federal Human Trafficking Report, 606 human trafficking cases were working their way through the federal courts involving 1,058 criminal defendants.
Of those cases, 575 involve sex trafficking crimes. New Mexico ranked 23rd in the nation for active cases in that report.
Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, told the committee she planned to reintroduce a bill in the upcoming 60-day legislative session that she pushed for in the last session to change laws and penalties related to human trafficking.
That bill, which made its way through the House before stalling in the Senate, would expand the definition of human trafficking, increase consequences for those who commit the crime and expand protections to victims, among other actions.
“This is a dark, dark issue,” said Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. “We need to do better protecting folks.”