Ohio is a Slave Market

State begins studying human trafficking

By Gregory Flannery

Ohio is one of only eight U.S. states that have not enacted laws against human trafficking.  Yet Ohio is a thriving market for human beings, according to a new state study.

“Report on the Prevalence of Human Trafficking in Ohio,” issued by a subcommittee of the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission, is a first step in quantifying and addressing the problem of human trafficking in the state.

Some of its findings are startling:

  • As a proportion of population, Toledo is the busiest slave market in the United States.
  • Children who have been involved with the juvenile-justice or foster-care systems are at high risk for being trafficked.
  • Police, hospitals, social workers and others largely do not understand and therefore do not properly respond to evidence of human trafficking.

The report includes first-person accounts by former slaves in Ohio and concludes that the state has failed to respond to the tragedy of slavery within its borders.

Recommendations include legislation banning human trafficking, treating child prostitutes as victims rather than criminals and the establishment of safe houses across the state where slaves can seek refuge.

‘Most vulnerable’

Trafficking in humans is the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, exceeded only by illegal drug sales, the report says. Quantifying the number of victims is difficult because the trade in people is conducted underground, so the study used a series of models to develop estimates.

The numbers show the problem is not rare, with 783 foreign-born persons estimated to be trafficked into the labor or sex trade in Ohio and 1,078 youth who have been trafficked into the sex trade over the course of a year.

A variety of factors make Ohio fertile ground for the slave trade. One is geography.

“Ohio’s proximity to the Canadian border makes it possible for victims to be moved through Michigan and be trafficked in various venues throughout Ohio,” the report says. “Toronto’s international airport has been identified as one of the arrival destinations for some victims who are trafficked in Canada, while others are moved through to the United States.”

A growing population of immigrants also means a higher incidence of human trafficking.

“Most of the migrant labor in Ohio and the United States is concentrated in poorly regulated industries that demand cheap labor,” the report says. “Such industries include textiles (sweatshops), agriculture, restaurants, construction and domestic work.”

But not all slavery in the United States involves immigrants. Ohio’s growing poverty rate makes U.S. citizens vulnerable, too.

“Those domestic populations who are most vulnerable to human trafficking are the poor,” the report says. “In 2008, 1.5 million Ohioans lived below the poverty level. This is the highest rate since 1994. Since 2002, the population in Ohio grew a total of 1.2 percent while the number of those who are poor grew to over 40 percent. … According to the National Center on Family Homelessness State Report Card (2009), Ohio is ranked 20th among the 50 states for child homelessness, but is ranked 42 out of 50 states for children’s vulnerability to homelessness, which in turn contributes to a higher vulnerability to child sex trafficking.”

Perhaps the most disturbing marker for children at risk of becoming trafficking victims is having been involved in the very systems that are meant to help troubled kids, namely foster-care, children’s services and juvenile court.

“In Toledo, 77 percent of the trafficked youth had been involved with child welfare at some point in their lives and 52 percent had been involved in the foster care program,” the report says.

Toledo has received the most attention in Ohio for human trafficking, with more arrests than any U.S. cities other than Miami, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; and Las Vegas, Nevada.

“Given that the city of Toledo’s population is 298,446 and Lucas County’s is 440,456, this area can be considered to lead the nation for the number of traffickers produced and the number of victims recruited into the sex trade per capita,” the report says.

In just the past four years, 60 U.S. citizens in Toledo have been identified as child victims of sex trafficking.

But the crime goes on throughout the state, with prosecutions for labor trafficking in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

Rescue is step one

The study details the horrors to which slaves are subjected – not just lack of wages or freedom of movement but also beatings, broken bones, malnutrition, rape and torture. After being freed, victims often suffer long-term psychological problems, sometimes leading to suicide.

“In 2007, one trafficked girl in Toledo who testified in a case outside of the state of Ohio returned home to find little support, no safe haven and no escape from the internal depression and external stigma she found,” the report says. “With a baby left to care for, she ended her life at 17 years old.”

The lack of support for victims isn’t merely a matter of tender feelings. Slaves are often treated as criminals – prosecuted for immigration violations or for engaging in prostitution, for example.

“Ohio’s response to child sex trafficking is weak,” the study says. “There are three conventional institutions that will intersect with trafficked youth who are involved in the underground economy practices of sex trafficking. Those are the criminal justice system, the social-service system and the health-care system. Each system’s response, it could be argued, has been either ineffective or insufficient.”

The study recommends several steps to improve Ohio’s response to the growing problem of human trafficking:

  • Stop arresting and incarcerating child victims of sex trafficking.
  • Pass a state anti-human trafficking law that includes provisions for protection, prevention and prosecution and that attends to the overall issue including supply (victims), demand (customers) and distribution (traffickers).
  • Improve the oversight of massage parlors, agriculture and other “traditionally exploitative” markets
  • Train health departments on human trafficking.
  • Ask the Coalition on Homeless and Housing in Ohio, when interviewing homeless youth, to ask whether they have traded sex for housing or if pimps or boyfriends take their money.
  • Appoint an ongoing committee to coordinate anti-trafficking activities of Immigration Customs Enforcement, the FBI, state and local law enforcement, child welfare, and the juvenile justice system.
  • Have Ohio included in the national Human Trafficking Reporting System’s database to obtain better understanding of the problem in Ohio.

If Ohio is to stop human trafficking, a systemic overhaul is in order, according to the study. Rescuing slaves is only a first step. Take the case of “Julie,” a 12-year-old Toledo girl pressed into sexual bondage, servicing men at a Pennsylvania truck stop.

“With the help of a truck driver and an adult friend, also recruited from Toledo into the sex trade, they were able to escape and call the police,” the report says.

The traffickers were prosecuted, but Julie’s troubles didn’t end with her apparent liberation.

“Rescue out of the sex trafficking is not the end of the story, but the beginning

of a longer, more difficult road to recovery,” the study says. “After returning to school, Julie was ridiculed by her classmates for being a ‘prostitute.’ As a result, she refused to attend school, quickly fell behind and quit.”

Six years later she was struggling to overcome another kind of slavery – addiction to crack cocaine.