NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The number of human trafficking cases in Hampton Roads has increased during the pandemic, according to the region’s human trafficking task force.

The Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force formed in 2016 in response to the number of victims in our area.

The crime is known as one that’s hidden in plain sight and the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped to curb it.

“When COVID hit, it made is so much worse because we isolated ourselves and it’s still something that’s causing us to be isolated,” said Dede Wallace, who is a victim assistance specialist for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations.

According to ICE, between April and June of 2020, they had 72 active investigations, eight new investigations and made nine arrests.

They found 14 confirmed victims.

“There [are] less eyes. There’s less attention on these victims. We want to make sure that we know this has happened and has occurred at a great rate, so it’s not something we can ignore and we want to pay attention that this is going on,” she said.

Out of the victims, Wallace says they’re finding more minors and many involved with familial trafficking, where a family member is involved.

She believes it’s sadly due to COVID-19.

“You have more people online than there were before. We have stressed-out parents. We have an economy that’s taken a toll. We have people with new risk factors they didn’t have before COVID,” she said.

The Samaritan House, which is part of the task force, says they’ve also seen increased numbers for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and homelessness but their numbers for human trafficking have also increased.

“We’ve probably seen at least a 30-percent increase in the trafficking department, ” said Courtney Pierce, who is the anti-trafficking outreach and direct services coordinator for the organization.

Pierce says they’ve been busy since the pandemic started.

“We have not shut down. We are like essential workers. We knew from the beginning that our work is essential. We have shifted how we work on things in the office but we’re still here. We still have a hotline,” she said.

Pierce says they’ve worked to accommodate those who need help during the pandemic with safety and mental health in mind.

The Samaritan House has incorporated telehealth appointments for victims, who are dealing with not only the stress of the pandemic but their own situations.

The organization, which also shelters victims, says they’ve worked to keep people safe while also practicing social distancing.

“For us, that has meant utilizing hotels and also means utilizing our shelters to the best of our ability, where we create spaces for families to be in. That means we use other shelters that weren’t meant for another population. We use that shelter for that population because we want to make sure that we’re housing those who are in need of housing but we want to make sure they’re safe as well so we’re concerned about health and safety,” she said.

Pierce also says the Samaritan House has been working curb shortfalls in donations and that they’re looking for donations, which are both financial and items victims need.

The Samaritan House’s website updates what items they are collecting.

While the pandemic may be a scary time for many, Pierce encourages those who are victims to use them as resources.

“This is a crucial time, and do the very best with what you have but also know you can seek help. There are folks who are continuing to do work,” she said.

And that’s not just those on the task force. It’s important for the community to also be on the lookout.

Wallace says there are a number of signs to look for including people having access to money without having a job, new friends, new contacts online, new social media accounts, more devices, as well as being a little too happy or sad when names are mentioned.

She also says minors can lose interest in friends or hobbies and have a new older boyfriend or girlfriend. They may also have prepaid credit cards or more cell phones.

“It’s not always overt as they’re dressing differently,” Wallace said. “That’s why they’re more in the shadows because it’s sometimes very subtle. Look for the keys. You’re going to look for layers and put them all together that something’s going on.”

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice announced it awarded more than $101 million to combat human trafficking around the country.

The Office of the Attorney General of Virginia received $525,352.

To learn more about human trafficking, click here.

If you are a victim and need assistance, you can call the Human Trafficking Hotline at 757-430-2120.

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