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Reports Of Child Exploitation, Trafficking Increase During Pandemic

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Young people are spending more time at home and on their phone, which makes them more vulnerable to human traffickers who lurk on social media.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Law enforcement in San Diego was reporting yet another side effect of the coronavirus pandemic, a spike in child exploitation on the internet. As kids at home, spend more time online KPBS education reporter Joe Hong spoke to investigators and advocates about what parents can do to monitor youth behavior while schools are out.

Speaker 2: 00:22 Because if we really think about this as modern day slavery,

Speaker 3: 00:25 It seems counterintuitive that reports of human trafficking are up while everyone is sheltering in place. But detective Dan Deardorff with the San Diego human trafficking task force, isn't surprised because many miners have been at home spending more time on their phones and social media,

Speaker 2: 00:39 Social media is, um, it's good, but it has its downfalls where you have a lot of cat fishing going on, which is they're representing somebody else who, um, to the victim or survivor. And, uh, they start promising and things like I promise you. You're so beautiful. You're so cute. You're smart.

Speaker 3: 01:01 According to the San Diego County district attorney's office reports of internet crime against juveniles in the County, which mostly involved sharing elicit photos of miners have tripled. Since the pandemic started in April of 2019, there were 287 reports in the County. This April, the numbers shot up to more than 850, the local spike mirrors, a trend throughout the United States and across the way

Speaker 4: 01:22 As compared to a variety of factors. Um,

Speaker 3: 01:25 Rebecca Sternberg oversees the cyber tip line at the national center for missing and exploited children in April, 2019. The national tip line received about 1 million reports of child exploitation. Online. This April, the center received more than 4 million reports

Speaker 4: 01:40 With kids being home and parents being at home, get a stay at home orders, um, schools being closed, um, children just have more access to being online. Um, more access to kind of devices that get on the internet.

Speaker 3: 01:51 Dear door's team, which focuses on sex trafficking cases in the San Diego region conducted 12 rescues between March and may of this year. That's more than double what they did during the same months. Last year, the investigation often begins when friends and family report changes in a young person's behavior.

Speaker 2: 02:07 Uh, let's say we received a report from a parent and I'm concerned that their child is leaving home a lot. Uh, they come home with more than one phone. All of a sudden they have money with them

Speaker 3: 02:22 Even before the pandemic human trafficking was a top priority for local law enforcement as a border region, San Diego counties, especially vulnerable district attorney summer Stephan said our office has focused on prevention,

Speaker 4: 02:34 But we simply don't talk to our kids about these issues. And that's why they're kind of sitting ducks for exploitation.

Speaker 3: 02:43 Last year, Stephen's office launched the San Diego trafficking prevention collective, which created a curriculum to help children and detect when someone is trying to exploit them online.

Speaker 4: 02:51 All of the different buzzwords that the, the information that is subverted know like lots of times in, in the world of investigating these cases, they'll use roses instead of money. That's the communication of trading sex for money.

Speaker 3: 03:12 Stephan says local investigators have to keep up with the constantly changing methods of perpetrators, but she said social media platforms, aren't doing enough to help

Speaker 4: 03:20 The social platforms. They don't really adjust. They're looking for huge red flags that by law, they have to intercept and they're not looking for subtlety.

Speaker 3: 03:31 Deardorff says the fight against these crimes begins in the home during a time of social distancing. He said it's more important now than ever for parents to make sure their kids feel cared for at home. So they don't become vulnerable to the flattery that leads to exploitation.

Speaker 2: 03:45 A lot of it is the responsible ability of the parents. Um, again, I think the most important thing for us as individuals, as a whole is just communication with each other and opening up and finding out what the other person's going through. Because if you can't gain the trust of individuals in your family or individuals in your community, um, then you're losing half the battle.

Speaker 3: 04:08 If you suspect that a minor, you know is being exploited online, you can submit a report at report that's cyber tip.org.

Speaker 1: 04:16 Joining me is KPBS education reporter Joe Hong, Joe. Welcome.

Speaker 5: 04:20 Thanks for having me

Speaker 1: 04:22 Those statistics. You talk about the huge spikes in elicit photos of kids and in child exploitation, that's really disturbing. Do San Diego investigators have the resources to keep up with this increase?

Speaker 5: 04:35 Yeah, I think they do, you know, uh, this type of crime, uh, this type of exploitation has been a real priority for San Diego county's district attorney and the Sheriff's office. And they've actually created a task force to investigate these types of crimes and a lot of these crimes, according to the national center for missing and exploited children, a lot of, a lot of these individual reports are related to one image or one video that has gone viral. And it's being shared around. When I talked to investigators, they, they seem to be keeping up with this increase.

Speaker 1: 05:11 What happens when let's say a parent suspects, their child has been contacted with a suspicious request for a photo, should they report it to law enforcement?

Speaker 5: 05:22 Yes, they absolutely should report law enforcement and they actually have a couple options. They could go to the national center for missing and exploited children. They have a cyber tip line that I mentioned in the story, and if they report it through that platform, it actually comes back to local law enforcement or they can reach out directly to local law enforcement. And then what happens is that, um, investigators in the trafficking task force or the internet crimes against children task force will investigate, uh, they'll look at the child's social media interactions or interactions on any messaging platforms and, um, in the, the investigations that actually lead to an arrest, a lot of sort of going undercover by detectives, typically in like a hotel or, um, where these investigators will meet the perpetrators in person,

Speaker 1: 06:16 Da summer. Stephan told you that parents don't talk to their children about the potential for becoming victims of exploitation or sex trafficking. So tell us more about the resources available to help parents to have that conversation with their kids.

Speaker 5: 06:32 So the DA's office has launched, what's called the San Diego trafficking prevention collective that has created this curriculum for helping teachers and parents recognize the signs of exploitation or trafficking. The child might be going out frequently, might be coming home with more money or more, uh, cell phones in some cases, and having, um, older, older partners, older boyfriends. Um, and what's interesting is that, uh, the DA's office actually told me that once they started doing these presentations in schools, some students actually came up to them and said, I think I'm being exploited online. So this, this program seems to be working.

Speaker 1: 07:15 What happens to the children who actually become the victims of sex traffickers? How are they treated by law enforcement?

Speaker 5: 07:23 Uh, detective Dan Deardorff white, who I talked to, uh, spoke to me about this in some detail. So as soon as the arrest is made, um, they intercept the, the child and they immediately assess the psychological and emotional condition. And it really takes a lot of, a lot of counseling. And that really is the focus of the, the trafficking task force. Yes, making the arrest is important, but I think the, the aftermath of that and helping these folks, uh, recover from what they've been through is, is really the top priority for them.

Speaker 1: 07:57 You report that San Diego detectives made 12 rescues of kids being trafficked between March and may of this year. Do they have any idea how many children locally may have been involved in the sex trade and have not been rescued?

Speaker 5: 08:12 Yeah, this is a, this is a question that I asked pretty frequently and the same answer yet is that, um, we don't know this issue. Experts agree that this, these crimes are extremely under reported and they are hard to recognize for, uh, for law enforcement because, you know, if you stop someone and you suspect that they have a weapon or, um, or narcotics, you can search for that. But if you see a man in a car accompanied by a woman, there's no sort of conspicuous, you know, reason for suspicion there. And so, yeah, the answer is really no, but we know that these kinds are under reported.

Speaker 1: 08:52 Now, finally, Joe social media platforms getting criticized for not being active enough. We heard that in your story too, that they're not doing enough to target child sex exploitation. What do critics say they could be doing that? They're not doing?

Speaker 5: 09:08 Um, so da summer stuff and told me that she would like to see social media companies really, really beef up their, um, the teams that sort of investigate the exchanges between perpetrators and, uh, their victims. She said local law enforcement is able to really go in there and learn the language and the lingo that these perpetrators use, this lingo changes often. Um, whereas I think social media companies are, they really catch the big red flags, you know, like the, the images or the videos that are being circulated. Um, and yeah, da, summer Stephan would like to see these platforms sort of get better at recognizing the nuances and these interacts.

Speaker 1: 09:51 Okay. Then I've been speaking with KPBS education reporter Joe Hong, Joe. Thank you. Thank you.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.