Reflections on the Pandemic’s Impact on Human Trafficking and LifeWay Network’s Programs

At the onset of the pandemic, LifeWay was approached by concerned individuals who wanted to learn more about what staff was seeing on the ground. I offered thoughts on virtual panel discussions, coalition meetings, and different communications such as in this article by Dennis Sadowski of Catholic News Service. I also explained that it would likely take some time before the field could speak concretely about any trends and supply data to support them. Now, more than a year later, we’re in a better position to address how the pandemic impacted human trafficking and LifeWay Network’s work.

How did the pandemic affect human trafficking generally?

There are some indications that human trafficking may have increased during the pandemic. Polaris Project noted a 40% increase in calls compared to the same period the previous year in the first 3 months of the pandemic. CAST LA reported a 185% increase in cases from 2019.1,2 Back in April 2020, I outlined some of the reasons why I believed human trafficking would increase at the time. So, how does the current information match up to some of my hypotheses?

Domestic Violence (DV) & Intimate Partner Violence (IPV): Since isolation plays a significant role in both DV and IPV, we were concerned that mandates for increased social distancing and quarantining would exacerbate tension in abusive relationships. It is not unusual for survivors of human trafficking to have experienced IPV or DV, as survivors are often trafficked by those they know such as members of the family, or a partner. Feelings of isolation can contribute to the feeling that there is no one to turn to or to consult.

Unfortunately, as predicted, there is evidence of an increase in both cases and calls. The United Nations reported an uptick across various countries like Argentina, France, Australia, and beyond.3 Even in the first three weeks of its first implemented lockdown, the UK had a 97% increase in calls to its DV hotline. When appropriate, LifeWay’s social worker works directly with each resident on resourceful strategies such as safety planning. LifeWay’s host community organizes activities, eats together weekly, and converses with one another, all of which helps foster a sense of connection. This is helpful because we know from the data and experience that even once a person “leaves” a relationship it is possible for them to return to their abusive partner.

Employment & Housing: Human Trafficking can fall on a spectrum. While not all forms of exploitative work are trafficking, employers and landlords can turn to tactics of force, fraud, or coercion, particularly when faced with new economic pressures. We had fears that many would lose their employment, but we also feared that employers would either ignore health guidelines, or abuse circumstances for their own benefit. As Polaris Project warned about those who employ domestic support: “Shelter in place or quarantine does not mean that a live-in nanny, house cleaner, or caregiver should work 24/7. Establish normal working hours for this less than normal time.”4 This is exactly the kind of slippery slope we feared. While most of the residents at LifeWay remained meaningfully employed, there was job loss experienced by a survivor in the safe house, which is a disruption to a resident’s road to recovery. During her time at LifeWay, she was pleased to find work again.

In regard to housing, there also seems to be evidence that there was an increase in landlords requesting commercial sex in exchange for rent.5 Longer-term housing placements in which we typically referred residents to also had less space than they had in the past, as well. Naturally, LifeWay remained the residents’ home during a time where eviction and unemployment were feared in the country. A typical stay at LifeWay Network is one year, but stays were extended.

Youth in the Digital space: Stay-at-home orders paired with limited opportunities for leisure compelled youth to spend more time online, a space traffickers and exploiters frequent to recruit and target potential victims. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported in October 2020 that online child sexual exploitation doubled from 2019.6 As a response, LifeWay decided to advocate for and support the EARN IT Act which holds companies accountable for facilitating child sexual abuse material. As an organization that provides services to women, we understand that many traumas start during childhood. Preventing exploitation at a young age is critical to ending human trafficking overall.

How did the pandemic impact LifeWay Network?

If some current preliminary data suggests human trafficking may have increased, did LifeWay also experience a huge surge of referrals during the pandemic? Not exactly. Human trafficking is often a process, as is an exit plan. A person is not generally trafficked one day, and the next day able to leave. Traffickers often take time to groom and build rapport with potential victims. Furthermore, it can take years before a survivor feels capable or has the ability to take different steps, and sometimes they never do. There are a number of reasons why that may be the case including that victims often carry guilt, they may be afraid, they may lack the resources or an ability to leave, and sometimes they don’t realize what is happening to them is illegal. If the pandemic further exasperated the conditions that lead to trafficking, the impact of the pandemic might not be seen immediately. In fact, we’re starting to see greater intakes now than during the pandemic, and expect the referrals to increase even more with time.

Safety, continuity, and recovery remained central to our work. During the pandemic, LifeWay put in place various safety protocols, which at first can seem difficult to implement in a community setting like a safe house. Rules put in place included limiting the number of persons occupying community space, ensuring health and safety equipment were available, and pausing weekly community dinners for some time. As a result, LifeWay reported zero COVID cases among residents living in the safe house.

LifeWay also launched a COVID relief fund for survivors. The fund was established to assist safe house residents and alumni who were facing financial hardship due to business closures and job loss during the pandemic. One alumnae recipient reported: “Thank God my symptoms were not too severe, and I was able to stay at home and avoid the emergency department…Today I am feeling better. Life has come to a new normal. I am looking for a job as an essential worker with a huge smile on my face. Life is good. Your help makes a huge difference in our lives.”

WINGs was in the middle of its first pilot during the start of the pandemic and now we can report that LifeWay has successfully completed its first pilot of the program. The sessions and the graduation continued online. Considering there are varying levels of internet abilities, everyone successfully logged on to the ceremony. In addition to the graduation of program participants there were two incredible, yet unexpected outcomes. One was that a mentor pair launched a mask business together. The second was the development of a Pandemic Survival Guide developed by the participants to share what has helped them cope in the past.

Take Actions:
1) Urge Congress to hold technology companies accountable by passing the EARN IT Act now:
2) Read LifeWay’s pandemic survival guide.
3) Support LifeWay’s continued work in recovery by checking out the latest project to purchase a van:

1 Polaris Project, Human Trafficking During the COVID-19 Pandemic
2 CAST LA 2020 Impact Report
3 United Nations, UN supporting ‘trapped’ domestic violence victims during COVID-19 pandemic
4 Polaris Project, Domestic Workers Face Economic Devastation During the COVID-19 Pandemic
5 Reuters, ‘I had no choice’: Sex for rent rises with coronavirus poverty
6 National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, COVID-19 and Missing & Exploited Children