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Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Human Trafficking Commission released a report at a meeting Wednesday revealing startling facts about rampant sex trafficking throughout Ohio, putting simply: “Ohio’s response to child sex trafficking is weak.”
The report details factors that contribute to the state’s status as a sex trafficking hot spot, outlines the reforms already put in motion, and recommends what further steps must be taken to eliminate human trafficking in Ohio.
Victims from Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland and Toledo were interviewed over a 3-year period, providing data of over 300 women.
Over a hundred of those women were reportedly forced into the trade under the age of 18; some were as young as 12. Of those underage, most were recruited by women involved in the trade who first appeared friendly. The majority of recruits made by men were victims over 18, who first acted as boyfriends before turning abusive.
Many victims experienced childhoods full of abuse, rape and poverty.
The report also reveals customers of sex trafficking to cover a wide array of demographics, including drug dealers, businessmen, police officers, lawyers, truckers, athletes and politicians.
Pay can range from $10 to $150, depending on the requested services.
What’s already been done?
A similar study conducted by the Commission two years ago estimated that more than 1,000 Ohio children were trafficked every year, in addition to over 800 immigrants.
These facts prompted Representative Teresa Fedor of Toledo to introduce House Bill 262, turning human trafficking into a first-degree felony. The bill allows victims the ability to sue their traffickers for damages and see records of prostitution or solicitation expunged. Fedor calls it a “basic human rights issue.” Her bill, dubbed the “safe harbor law,” went into effect in June.
The bill followed Ohio Governor John Kasich’s decision to sign an executive order in March, which created a 90-day task force focused on studying police response to the problem.
“Can you tell me how a 13-year-old kid can be snatched, blackmailed, drugged, raped in our state, in our country?” Kasich said during an emotional signing of the order, thinking of his own 12-year-old twin daughters.
Such slow police response helps contribute to the problem, Wednesday’s study claims.
The report provides evidence of one police call featured on a Primetime special about child sex trafficking in Toledo, in which police took 90 minutes to respond to multiple calls from neighbors who witnessed screams and fighting.
Toledo is the forth largest sex-trafficking city in the U.S, following Miami, Portland and Las Vegas.
The report cites multiple reasons in addition to ill-prepared first responders as to why Ohio attracts many traffickers. This includes a growing pool of legal and illegal immigrant populations, its close proximity to the Canadian border, and a high rate of runaways in Ohio. It also reports that the three institutions that should assist in eliminating sex trafficking—the criminal justice system, the social service system, and the health care system—are “either ineffective or insufficient.”
Currently, most individuals prosecuted as a result of sex trafficking are those most easily caught: the victims.
But the juvenile justice system is “not the appropriate place for traumatized victims of the human trafficking,” the study says, and the child welfare system doesn’t provide clear enough language to provide assistance.
Not only do these toothless laws attract traffickers to Ohio—victims end up in a worse position after their arrest.
“Without some form of intervention, 77 percent of sexually exploited youth simply continue to be prostitutes in adulthood,” argued Fedor.
What happens next?
The report offers six recommendations to combat sex trafficking, including a focus on arresting and convicting buyers and engaging schools in the fight.
Very few resources exist for victims of sex trafficking in Ohio, which will change if advocate Theresa Flores has her way. Flores has written a book on her own experience as a sex trafficking victim and is in the process of obtaining a state license for a Columbus-area group home for victims. No such place in Ohio currently exists.
“We have allowed this to happen,” said Flores. “We don’t like to think that it happens here, but slavery is alive and well in the U.S.”
U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach of Cleveland agrees that a community effort is necessary to end sex trafficking.
“It’s all around, literally hiding in plain sight,” said Dettelbach, who has made human trafficking a high priority for his office. “If you see something, you have to say something.”
Dettelbach says anyone suspicious of trafficking should call the FBI at 216-522-1400.