Study: Sex trafficking has increased in Austin-area during pandemic

A new study shows evidence that sex trafficking has increased in the Austin area during the pandemic.

The study, conducted by CEASE Texas, shows an increase in ads related to sex trafficking in Austin during the pandemic.  

“That’s a historic thing across the world. Whenever there is famine and plagues and war and chaos, the human trafficking number goes up exponentially,” said Steven Phenix, who runs communications for the Refuge for DMST 

The study also shows evidence that traffickers are adapting to COVID-19 concerns. Human trafficking ads with COVID-19 specific wording peaked around March 20, when the governor's executive order to mitigate the viruses spread went into effect. “[The ads] were including words like ‘COVID safe’ and ‘we’ll wear a mask’ and things like that.” said Phenix. 

Experts believe elevated levels of family violence due to COVID-19 may be partially to blame.

“Unfortunately with the COVID epidemic, it’s creating much more fertile ground for traffickers, for children who are locked in with their abusers and that makes them much more vulnerable.” 

Many child sex trafficking victims come to the Refuge for DMST’s “Refuge Ranch” for rehabilitation. Phenix says it is the “largest long term rehabilitative care community for child sex trafficking survivors in the United States.”

Still, it has just 48 beds. Phenix says there are less than 600 beds for long term care, throughout the country. 

Of the more than 26,000 children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children last year, 1 in 6 are believed to be trafficking victims. Most are runaways.

“Children are groomed online. [Traffickers are] looking for vulnerable children.” 

Phenix says the Refuge, like many nonprofits, has taken a hit this year. They are expecting a 40% decrease in donations and had to cancel their annual gala. They are trying to pivot, holding a virtual tour, and fundraiser this Thursday. Click here to learn more.