Magazine Features

Fighting the war online

Michelle Hannan

Ohio ranks fifth in the country for human trafficking, according to statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The evil continues during COVID-19 as traffickers have turned to the web for their nefarious gains.

In response, The Salvation Army in Ohio has also taken its fight against trafficking to the digital world. “We do more things remotely than we used to, says Michelle Hannan, the anti-human trafficking program director for The Salvation Army of Central Ohio.

Erin Meyer, the anti-human trafficking program manager for The Salvation Army in Cincinnati, said, “Since the pandemic, we’re more focused on online outreach.” She said most case management is now online. “Some clients prefer it because we’re maybe more accessible,”

Hannan said street outreach and drop-in services have been curtailed during COVID–19 but may start again soon. For now, a group of survivors meet weekly via Zoom.

“The pandemic certainly shifted some of what we do,” Meyer said. “We’re not doing the street outreach anymore, but we’ve been shifted to more online outreach.”

 

Finding a way

“But a lot of our work is still in-person and in the community,” said Hannan. “We’re taking a lot of safety precautions we didn’t have to take in the past.”

Hannan said while her staffers may have visited trafficking survivors in a public library or their homes before COVID to provide case management, that is no longer possible. “We can still go to their home and talk to them from a safe distance like outside on the porch,” she said.

Hannan, who also serves as the director of social services for the SWONEKY Division, said her staff used to accompany survivors to court and medical appointments, even driving them there. Due to COVID–19, they have depended more on Lyft and Uber.

“We can accompany them there, but we go in our own car,” she explained. “We’ve had to be really creative. We can still be there when they get there, but we’re not riding along the way we have in the past.”

“We’ve been able to be creative and figure out some ways around some of it,” she said. The situation is similar there with COVID–19 curtailing drop-in programs. The quarantines also put an end to group meetings at some locations, but the women are getting together virtually.

“We have a drop-in program that’s kind of been on hiatus since the pandemic, said Meyer. “But we have someone who coordinates our outreach, which used to include outreach to different drop-in programs and street outreach,” she said. “Some of them struggle with getting rides. Others don’t prefer it because they want the in-person, one-on-one communication away from their home.”

 

Still busy during COVID–19

Some reports indicate that the anti-human trafficking issue in Ohio has gotten worse. In late January, eight women were rescued from a human trafficking operation in New Albany, Ohio, near Columbus.

The Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force, part of the Ohio Attorney General’s Organized Crime Investigations Commission, took part, along with local, state, and federal law enforcement. The Salvation Army has a staffer from Hannan’s office who is on the task force.

“We have a comprehensive program that serves survivors of trafficking in a variety of different ways,” Hannan said. “One of the ways that we help is to partner with law enforcement to provide services to survivors who are identified through their investigations.

“We are on site when that investigation happens and we’re there to assess needs and start building relationships.”

Hannan said The Salvation Army helps provide ongoing case management and access to shelter, detox services, safety planning, legal representation, trauma therapy, and whatever else survivors need.

In Cincinnati, The Salvation Army has partnered with the city and a local non-profit, BLOC Ministries, on an awareness campaign called “I’m Not 4 Sale.” The effort involved several billboards around the Queen City.

“They did an awareness campaign, and they used our hotline as the primary call source,” Meyer said of BLOC Ministries. “We have also had staff go to their drop-in program for women who are engaged in commercial sex on the streets.”

by Robert Mitchell

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.