Sex trafficking expert says COVID-19 is hurting victims and making it more difficult to get help

Posted at 4:29 AM, Dec 15, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. - A man and woman are facing sex trafficking charges in Hampton Roads.

Thirty-three-year-old Leanthony Winston and 36-year-old Tanya Hardesty, along with others who are not listed in court documents, allegedly recruited two women for a prostitution scheme that went on for three months.

They are accused of renting hotels and motels, driving the women to the appointments, watching their children and controlling their movements.

Winston and Hardesty allegedly took all the money that was made. Records state Winston allegedly gave the women cocaine and meth so they could stay awake for appointments and keep the victims indebted to him.

Documents say the scheme started in March 2020 and continued until May.

Hardesty made posts on social media advertising the women even posting a "2-for-1 special."

It’s unclear how the women were rescued, but the suspects were arrested in early December.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has created circumstances that may increase the risk of trafficking, inhibit identification of those who are trafficked and those who survive trafficking, and make it harder to deliver comprehensive services to support survivors’ recovery," according to a study done by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Robert Beiser is the Director of the Strategic Initiative on Sex Trafficking for Polaris.

The agency supports victims and runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Beiser said this year there was a 40% increase in victims seeking emergency shelter compared to last year. He said they conducted a study in April.

“The economic impacts that are being felt by everyone are also turning into a crisis for trafficking victims,” said Beiser. “COVID is causing a crisis for trafficking victims who need to find places to escape their traffickers, and because of economic instability and nonprofits having to close their doors because of COVID, there are so many less places and so many more people in need.”

He’s not involved with the recent case in Hampton Roads, but he said predators are activity trying to take advantage of people as many have lost jobs and ran out of money.

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“Traffickers know that right now is the time when people are very vulnerable,” said Beiser. “I think an important part to always bring up is that sex trafficking is a crime that really doesn't need to happen. If we had more open conversations around how everyday people in our neighborhoods are choosing to buy sex from strangers, which turns into this horrible crime that we have international task forces to try and combat, it's really a thing that could end with the right conversation and the right support in our community, so please talk about it and talk about the fact that it's not some faraway problem. It's a thing we can solve right in our own neighborhoods.”

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