Sex trafficking in Ohio alone has grown from 289 cases to 375 cases in the last year, according to the sex trafficking organization called the Polaris Project. In addition, 1352 calls were made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in reference to Ohio. Traffickers use tactics like kidnapping, threats of violence or debt bondage in order to force people into doing these services against their will. Legislations and coalitions across the country have banded together to bring awareness and tackle the problem.
Due to its proximity to the majority of America, sex trafficking is rampant in central Ohio. Although Ohio is in the Midwest, it is close to several prominent cities such as Cleveland, Chicago and New York.
“What makes Ohio a great place to live is also what makes Ohio an easy target for traffickers: sex traffickers exploit the numerous interstate highways that link Ohio to other parts of the country,” detective Michael Gross of the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force said.
Sex traffickers also exploit the most vulnerable people they can find. Although there are many factors makes someone an ideal target, traffickers often prey on those who are dependent on synthetic opioids because they are much easier to recruit and control. Young, impressionable people who have little to no support at home are also highly vulnerable to traffickers, according to Gross.
Although trafficking may seem like a problem where the perpetrator is an outside, unknown force, victims can be trafficked by their own family members and friends.
“Traffickers come from all walks of life. They can be strangers, friends or even relatives. They can be men or women of any race, religion or nationality. Traffickers can be anyone willing to exploit women or men for sex for profit,” Gross said.
The threat of sex trafficking can be frightening; after all, no one wants to have to worry about getting sold into sexual slavery while they’re at Polaris Fashion Place or Easton shopping center. However, the reality of it is that sex trafficking can happen in many places that students frequent.
“One day, I was working [at Polaris Fashion Place], and this group of guys came in and started saying some very derogatory things to me. One of them seemed to be the leader, and started telling me how he had lots of guys who would pay good money for me and how I should come hangout with him and his crew after I get off,” junior Sarah McGuire said.
After her shift, the men followed her when she went to Starbucks and grabbed her arm and continued to tell her that she had to “hang out” with them. She then went back to her store and told security, who then escorted her to her car. Luckily for her, it didn’t go any further.
According to both Gross and Martin, trafficking frequently happens at big malls, rave parties and hotel parties. Meeting people online is also dangerous because they could be working with a sex trafficker or be a sex trafficker themselves.
In Franklin County alone, there are 1500 counts of solicitation per year. Mixed up in these charges are men and women of all ages forced to perform sexual acts, including minors. While certain areas or places are considered more dangerous than others, no one is 100 percent safe from the grasp of sex trafficking.
“If you think that everything is safe in the Lewis Center bubble or the Columbus bubble or the Cincinnati bubble, you’re wrong, because there’s danger everywhere,” School Resource Officer Deputy Robert Martin said.
“We live in a free society, and you shouldn’t have to watch your back. However, the reality is you can do what you like, but you have to be smart about where you are and what you’re doing.”
One of the biggest misconceptions related to sex trafficking is its association with prostitution. Some say they’re the same, while others disagree, and it is clear that the line between the two is sometimes blurry. Defined as engaging in sexual relations for money, there are an estimated one million prostitutes in the US, according to a Foundation Scelles 2012 report. Prostitution, solicitation and loitering to solicit are all illegal acts that can be considered misdemeanors or felonies, punishable by fines and possible jail time.
Judge Paul Herbert of Franklin County pioneered the CATCH program after noticing that women brought on prostitution charges exhibited the same abuse as those trafficked, but had little resources to avoid the perpetual cycle.
“Herbert talks about seeing a domestic violence victim and in the same day, a defendant charged with prostitution. They had so many similarities: the vacant eyes, bruised skin, possessive male partner, yet one was a victim and one was a criminal,” CATCH Court Director Keturah Lee DiChristopher said.
Other programs and organizations around Ohio have started to work towards preventing prostitution as well. Along with the CATCH program, United Way Coalition of Delaware County (UWCDC) has set up rehabilitation curriculums that include education on health, legal consequences and its negative impact on the victim and community. Despite what some may think, prostitution isn’t always a choice, and is not always a victimless crime.
“The line between prostitution and sex trafficking is not as clear cut as it seems. A trafficker is always behind what’s happening to them: voluntary or not,” UWCDC Coordinator Brande Urban said. “They [victim] is usually promised money, love or a better life but almost always suffer from trauma, drug problems and mental health issues.”
Along with working with the CATCH program, UWCDC plans to raise awareness and educate the community on human trafficking.
“Educating and supporting people on a local, state and national level is how we can prevent trafficking and prostitution. Learn the myths and misconceptions. Spread the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s number. Recognize the signs of trafficking and prostitution and report it. These are all things people in the community can do to contribute,” Urban said.
According to business teacher Crystal Shanahan, Theresa Flores, a formerly trafficked woman who was interviewed for a DECA project in 2017, was new in town, and a boy who she liked offered her a ride home. Instead of taking her where he said he would, he took her to his house where he raped her and his cousins took pictures. Afterwards, they threatened to show the pictures to her father’s boss and get him fired if she did not agree to be prostituted.
For the next several years, Flores was forced to service anywhere from four to ten men each night. Fortunately, she was rescued and founded the organization Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution, or S.O.A.P. The organization puts phone numbers for victims on bars of soap in hotel bathrooms and other places where young girls are frequently trafficked so they can call and get help.
“Four months ago I was in a Detroit motel near the airport and the ‘John’ [a prostitute’s client] started to go crazy on me. He was high and beat me. I was scared for my life, so I ran into the bathroom with my cell phone and locked the door. I saw a bar of soap with a red label and called the number on it. It saved my life,” Amanda, a former trafficked woman who was helped by S.O.A.P, said, according to soapproject.org.
The CATCH Court program created by Judge Paul Herbert is a place for victims of human trafficking, prostitution and sexual exploitation to receive legal assistance and an individualized plan of action for recovery. Herbert has created pathways for victims of sex crimes that were previously inaccessible. The program has had a number of success stories, and continues to provide legal and emotional support to those enrolled.
“From the date of a defendant’s admission to the program, completion is two years. During a given week, participants may be in treatment, taking classes, seeking employment, and meeting with probation officers,” said a report by Karen Miner-Romanoff of Franklin University during a CATCH court evaluation in 2015.
The State Victim Assistance Act provides state funding to support enhanced victim service programs in Ohio. Eligibility requirements include operation by either a public agency or a private nonprofit organization, and direct service to individual victims must be the root of the organizations prerogatives. The District Attorney’s office has also been very adamant about raising awareness and reaching out, identifying 535 victims from 2014 to 2016.
The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking all across the globe. According to Shared Hope International, sex trafficking is defined as the use of fraud, force or coercion to cause a commercial sex act. Adults and children of all ages are pushed into this horrific modern day form of slavery, fueling a growing 150 billion industry.
The organization, She Has A Name (SHAN), has done work in Ohio to combat the issue of sex trafficking. Deeming themselves abolitionists, the organization works towards its goal using a three point system; education, collaboration and survivor care. To educate, the institution hosts training seminars to engage and raise awareness in the community.
“Our quarterly training sessions are open to the public, and we encourage men and women of all ages to attend. We have a unique curriculum that defines and shows the signs of trafficking, gives information on survival care and rehabilitation, while also connecting people to other initiatives,” Communication Engagement Director of SHAN, Whitney Varnau said.
The organization offers survival care with training, possible housing and more. Their mission is to serve the survivors and give them viable steps and opportunities in order to continue forward in their life.
“Our six-week scholarship program, ‘Strategies for Success,’ partners with Harrison College to encourage survivors and give them the necessary tools to pursue a job or education, preparing them for the future,” Varnau said. Luckily, protecting oneself from sex trafficking is fairly straightforward because traffickers prey on unsuspecting girls. Being aware of one’s surroundings when in public places is one of the best things that can be done.
The UWCDC encourages training school resource officers on the problem, putting up posters and banners to raise awareness and inviting and listening to guest speakers on the issue. Their Community Health Assessment measures awareness among the community and shows data on human trafficking. A new edition of the assessment is set to go out in 2020 and the organization hopes to see a large difference in education and awareness in the three years.
“The age of entry for trafficking and prostitution is typically 13. Being educated on the matter is one basic way we can help survivors,” Urban said.
Simple precautionary measures - letting friends know the location of a date, avoiding drug activities, and following your instincts - can prove to be life-saving. Sex trafficking is a danger in the Central Ohio area, but when armed with the right tools, people can take necessary steps to protect themselves and their community.
“If someone at a mall or somewhere looks at you funny or makes you feel uncomfortable, you need to let other people know what’s going on so that person can be watched or taken care of,” Martin said.
Members of S.O.A.P go by the phrase, “It’s better to call the police and have it be nothing than to not call the police and have it be something.”
Although the end has not yet come for many still trapped in the relentless system, much progress has been made towards a safer community. For help, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline. 1-888-3737-888.