Today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Human trafficking will soon surpass drugs and guns as the largest illegal enterprise in the country. And the most prevalent form is child sex trafficking. On a national report card Ohio was given a “D” on it’s response. Sarah Buckingham reports from Toledo – a city that’s on the frontlines of the tackling the problem.
“We’re gonna shoot up Lagrange Street, one of the typical areas where we’ll do a sting…” Pete Swartz investigates child sex trafficking with an FBI task force in northwest Ohio.
We’re driving through Toledo’s red light district. From Lagrange Street we turn onto Telegraph Road. It’s lined with strip clubs and adult bookstores. Swartz pulls into the parking lot at the Sunset Motel. The brightly colored paint is peeling and the neon sign doesn’t work anymore. The place looks abandoned.
Swartz says a mentally challenged 17-year-old girl was being sold here, “A source was telling us there were guys lined up outside waiting for their turn with this victim.”
The FBI ranked Toledo fourth in the nation for child sex trafficking. But that statistic is misleading. The ranking was based on the number of arrests over a short period of time, and it only included the fourty cities with an FBI task force .
“It’s not, oh, Toledo is terrible because all this is happening,” Swartz says. “It’s Toledo’s taking a proactive approach and we have the resources to address the issue. So that number is kinda thrown out there and its wrong.”
University of Toledo Professor Celia Williamson says, “Our problem in Toledo is no different than what’s happening in Columbus, what’s happening in Dayton, what’s happening in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit.”
Williamson is part of a statewide commission that studies child sex trafficking. They estimate about 1,000 Ohio children are trapped in the sex trade in any given year, and almost 3,000 kids are at risk of being recruited.
“And the recruiter is going to be another 14-year-old girl or a 16-year-old guy or an adult woman. It’s not going to be a big scary guy,” Williams says, “And it’s not going to be in a scary place, it’s going to be at the mall or at school, it’s going to be at the hang-out house, and that’s how it’s successful.”
State Representative Teresa Fedor has been working on this issue for years. Fedor says poverty and high rates of child abuse put children at risk, “They know people are desperate, they know children are vulnerable. These traffickers know exactly how to exploit situations like this.”
Last year Representative Fedor passed legislation that made human trafficking a felony in Ohio. It took five years. “We were the 45th state in the nation to get this law,” Fedor says, “which is just so pitiful.”
And there’s more work to do. The federal government says anyone under eighteen who is involved in prostitution is a victim of child sex trafficking. But in many states the age of consent is lower. In Ohio, it’s sixteen. So sometimes a minor is seen as a criminal – as a prostitute – rather than a victim. Fedor is trying to change that. She’s working on legislation called the Safe Harbor Act. It would prevent victims from being arrested and require the state to provide rehabilitation services - two things Toledo is already doing.
“We do not arrest our victims in the city of Toledo,” Fedor says, “and law enforcement, the prosecutors, the judges have been the leaders and the partners in taking a victim centered approach.”
Other Ohio cities are learning from Toledo and the Miami Valley is already taking a victim centered approach. Giving victims a safe place to live is the first step, and there are at least three local groups working on housing. There is also a curriculum in the works for middle schoolers to raise awareness in the Dayton Public Schools, and the University of Dayton is a hub for student activism across the state. Alex Kreiedenweis is co-founder of a student group called the New Abolitionist Movement.
“There are a lot of corollaries between human trafficking and what you think of when you think of chattel slavery that occurred during the transatlantic slave trade.” Kreidenweis says, “Human trafficking is the modern day slave trade.”
The New Abolitionist Movement lobbies for stronger laws at the statehouse. Kreiedenweis says he hopes to testify in support of the Safe Harbor Act. He and Fedor will be at the statehouse tomorrow for a public forum on human trafficking.
Community Voices volunteer Liz Cambron co-produced this piece with Sarah Buckingham.