Slavery Exists in Cincinnati Today

Ignorance about human trafficking leaves victims in bondage

By Margo Pierce
Contributing Writer

Media and law enforcement can miss human trafficking when they see prostitution. Photo by Kay Chernush.

Media and law enforcement can miss human trafficking when they see prostitution. Photo by Kay Chernush.

A critical stop on the Underground Railroad during the time of plantation slavery, Cincinnati boasts a storied past as a gateway to freedom for thousands of Africans held in bondage. But today Cincinnati – the home of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, an institution designed to teach the lessons from the past about slavery and other violations of individual freedom – is “relatively unprepared to deal effectively with human trafficking in the Midwest.”

This assessment comes from the center’s Greater Cincinnati Human Trafficking Report.

“Based on the findings from this report, it is evident that human trafficking is an issue that needs to be further addressed in Greater Cincinnati through public awareness and technical training for first responders, through the organization and advancement of efforts to criminalize human trafficking in Ohio and by learning from the programs that other cities and states have effectively implemented to address human trafficking,” the report says.

Volunteers interviewed 137 people from Southwest Ohio, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana between July 2007 and February 2008. Attorneys, government officials, health-care providers, interpreters, judges, law enforcement, pastors, reporters, social workers and victims’ advocates responded to a series of questions about slavery in Cincinnati, and 41 percent said they or their organizations have encountered victims of trafficking in the past five years.

“Law enforcement officers, judges, attorneys and social-service providers all acknowledge that human trafficking exists, but there is little specific law they can draw upon to stop the crime locally, and even less public knowledge of the issue,” the report says.

Cops don’t know

The report breaks down the penalties and elements of anti-trafficking laws in the Tri-State and summarizes the federal Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act (TVPA). The report then considers how only 40 percent of the professional respondents could be aware of anti-trafficking laws at the federal level and only 20 percent could identify the existence of state laws against modern day slavery, given that 91 percent said that they or their organizations have heard of human-trafficking cases.

“The survey results showed a surprising lack of awareness and knowledge of the issue of human trafficking, even among those most likely to encounter it,” the report says. “The general population in Cincinnati, therefore, is very likely to be even less aware. Although many survey respondents stated that they did not know the level of public awareness, a vast majority (77 percent) said that the general public’s knowledge of trafficking is only poor or fair. This comports with other studies that have shown that the general public lacks awareness of the issue.”

The ignorance of “first responders,” the people in professions most likely to respond to an incident involving a victim of human trafficking, underscores why, according to the U.S. government, less than 1 percent of trafficking cases are solved, compared to a 70 percent success rate in solving murder cases.

“While training on the law is important for all groups, it is particularly important for those groups most likely to encounter trafficking victims first,” the report says. “A majority of respondents (57 percent) said they believed that law enforcement is most likely to be the first to encounter trafficking victims. If law enforcement is indeed a first-responder, they must be knowledgeable and well-trained on the issue.

“Yet 48 percent of law-enforcement respondents said that local law enforcement in the Greater Cincinnati area has only a poor or fair knowledge of human trafficking. …In fact, 68 percent of law enforcement survey participants rated their own knowledge of trafficking as poor or fair.”

Despite this data, the report appears to capitulate to the social norm of not criticizing cops.

“In Cincinnati, law enforcement has a unique difficulty when it comes to fighting human trafficking due to the city’s geographic location,” the report says. “Cincinnati abuts Kentucky and Indiana, allowing traffickers to easily move across state and city borders where the laws and regulations on human trafficking differ.”

The report’s authors missed an opportunity to encourage strong leadership on this issue and build collaborative relationships that can lead to ending slavery in Ohio. The report instead gives local cops an excuse for not doing more to utilize local and federal resources.

The authors go on to wring their hands over the state of awareness in the medical community.

“The group just behind law enforcement considered to encounter trafficking first is medical professionals. … This is troubling because 77 percent of medical professionals surveyed said they had only a poor or fair knowledge of trafficking,” the report says. “Clearly, training on human trafficking is necessary for all groups surveyed and acutely necessary for potential first-responders such as law enforcement and medical professionals.”

Prosecutors get a pass

The study makes two recommendations encouraging community leaders to “support necessary training for law enforcement and medical professionals” and urges “state, city and community officials to enact comprehensive laws so that local law enforcement officials can prosecute, prevent and protect victims of human trafficking.” But the authors fail to make the strong argument necessary to back up these recommendations. A case in point is their assessment of the Ohio human-trafficking legislation enacted earlier this year.

The original legislation proposed in Ohio was based on the “model law” drafted for states to use in support of the TPVA – per the report’s recommendation – but the report fails to make the point that this would be a second attempt at passage because “the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association (OPAA), when asked about the previously proposed anti-trafficking laws, commented that, ‘We have all the laws we need.’ The Department of Justice has reported, however, that since 2000, ‘prosecutions under the TVPA have increased six-fold.’ ”

What the report doesn’t include is the fact that the OPAA proposed the new law because it opposed the more comprehensive legislation that the report says is needed.

“Due to its recent passage, Ohio’s new anti-trafficking law has yet to be applied,” the report says. “However, its convoluted definition of human trafficking, requirement of a pattern of corrupt activity and lack of labor trafficking provisions suggest the Ohio law will be somewhat more limited than the TVPA or laws passed by other states. Just as importantly, the new law does not provide for law-enforcement training, agency reporting or services for victims.”

Glossing over the fact that the prosecutors who claim to need effective legislation are the same people who effectively killed that same legislation is a disservice to the report’s own stated goals.

The report includes a resource list, a thoughtful analysis of news reports on incidents of human trafficking that aren’t identified as modern day slavery and a rather comprehensive summary of legislation at the national and state level. The report proves what many in the field have been saying for years: People don’t know that slavery is alive and well in the United States. But this important data can’t be allowed to override the facts that this is a complicated issue that calls into question the effectiveness of the institutions supposedly designed to help the most vulnerable in our society.

Slavery – the buying, selling and owning of human beings – is a despicable act, according to our history and our laws. Unfortunately, the Freedom Center’s report lacks the fortitude required to acknowledge that humanity has failed to eradicate this practice and the sense of urgency required to change that fact. The Greater Cincinnati Human Trafficking Report is an important step forward that can be seen as a springboard for further action, or its meaning can be lost to the complacency of “better than nothing” before turning our attention elsewhere.