CLEVELAND — For those working to combat human trafficking and child exploitation, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in months of sleepless nights.
“COVID definitely is really, really working against us,” Teresa Merriweather said.
It’s been nearly four months since the first documented case of COVID-19 in Ohio, which prompted stay-at-home orders across the state.
“Juveniles that are missing over there in Cuyahoga County on the missing person’s report,” Merriweather said. “That’s a problem and they’ve been missing after COVID.”
Merriweather has dedicated her life to putting a stop to human trafficking and said the pandemic has created a daunting amount of additional work and an aching sense of worry.
“So this is really bad for us dealing with COVID,” Merriweather said. “And we still have victims that are out there that are held in captivity and there’s still ‘Johns’ that are coming to be serviced by them.”
According to online records provided by Merriweather, there are currently 244 missing juveniles in Cuyahoga County alone.
She said a handful of variables are to blame.
“The parents are not paying attention to the kids,” Merriweather said.
Students in Northeast Ohio have been out of the classroom since mid-March, which Merriweather said has put a strain on adult supervision.
“Issuing laptops so that the students can continue to be able to do their work,” Merriweather said. “The parents don’t know who this kid has been talking to online and then they’re going to meet up with them.”
And with the holiday weekend on the horizon, Merriweather is pleading with parents to be on high-alert.
“Especially if there’s fireworks and things going on at different places,” Merriweather said. “That’s going to be where that trafficker is gonna meet that youth.”
Merriweather, along with other advocates, are reminding neighbors and community leaders that because thousands of Ohioans are currently out of work or balancing the task of working from home, traffickers are taking advantage of the opportunity and access to communication with teens online.
“When you’re allowing these kids to go out because you’re tired of them, they may go to Grandma’s or Aunt’s or go over to someone’s house or whatever,” Merriweather said. “You need to be paying attention to where they’re going, whose house they’re going to, the makeup of that house and make sure they arrive safely.”