SAN ANTONIO – Human trafficking is morphing in the face of COVID-19 and the trends are alarming advocates and experts in Bexar County.
Roy Maas Youth Alternatives Outreach Director Chuck Paul said the ability for traffickers to sell a person, for sexual actions or other means, was diminished following the COVID-19 outbreak and traffickers began ditching people they had trafficked onto the street.
“Prior to the pandemic, traffickers had what they call their stable of young people that they exploit,” Paul said. “After the pandemic hit and everything started to shut down, the ability for a trafficker to sell a person was greatly diminished because this person wasn’t making them money, they just got rid of them,” Paul said. “They dropped them off on the streets and said ‘you’re on your own.‘”
Paul said teens and young adults flooded the Centro Seguro RMYA drop-in Center and the LA Puerta Shelter for Trafficking Victims. Paul said he drives around town each week keeping in touch with at-risk youth.
“We reach out to them and let them know we’re here and we care about them,” Paul said. “We invite them to come into Centro Seguro where we’re able to give them a meal, a hot shower, a change of clothes, we stock them up with as much food as they could possibly carry, and engage them with our counseling center.”
According to Paul, once the state’s restrictions were lifted, traffickers started looking to “re-supply their stock of slaves,” so, time is of the essence.
“The traffickers have to re-supply their stock of slaves,” Paul said. “I’m calling it what it is. There’s a huge population of young people right now that are stuck at home, they haven’t been going to school. Their only social contact is social media and the traffickers are working hard on social media to target whichever child they can.”
Paul said traffickers look for in places where parents may not expect, like social media and online gaming platforms. Traffickers are combing the streets for runaways, homeless or foster youth, first offering them food, shelter and protection, then eventually making them have sex as payment, Paul said.
Paul said he tells parents they need to be aware of who their child is talking to on social media or multi-player video games and made aware of any person using a secret identity who is attempting to groom their child with gifts or attention on websites and web-based applications.
“Has your child started to receive gifts in the mail or Amazon? Something you didn’t buy them and you don’t know where it came from,” Paul said. “Have you started to see them become more secretive? Are they staying up late at night and sleeping all day because they’ve been online? Have they changed their circle of friends and changed their clothes? Are they being more disrespectful? Because the whole time the traffickers are seeding these ideas in their heads that their family doesn’t really care about them. So that trafficker can come in and be that trusted person,” Paul explained.
The following are signs of trafficking:
- A young person out in the streets that is not making eye contact, they seem a little confused, lost, or out of it
- A young person has an adult with them and you can tell there’s no family connection. The adult may have constant physical contact with the young person, who may be wearing hyper-sexualized clothing, abnormal for their age.
- If you’re in a hotel or motel and the person walks right past the front desk because they are pre-checked in
- The person has distinguishing tattoos
Paul said traffickers often use distinguishing tattoos as a way to “brand” people they are trafficking.
“These are called branding tattoos that traffickers put on them. And they’re very distinguishing,” Paul said. “Most of the time they’ll go with a street name for an individual, tattooed on the neck or somewhere that’s very visible.”
If you see any of these red flags, call law enforcement and tell them you’re reporting an unaccompanied minor or possible human trafficking.
If you are worried about your child’s behavior or interactions and you are not sure what to do, you can call Roy Maas Youth Alternatives 24/7 at (210) 340-8090 and speak to a counselor or case manager.
Any youth who are in a dangerous situation and need help can utilize the following hotlines and Safe Place locations:
- Call the RMYA hotline at (210) 340-8090 any time of the day of night, and speak with a case manager.
- Go to any Quick Trip or YMCA in town, ask for help, and they will contact RMYA to come pick you up. All those locations are Safe Place sites and the staff is trained to help you.
- Text the word SAFE to 4-HELP (44357). That is the Bexar County Safe Place line. They will ask where you are and direct you to the closest Safe Place and resources.