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Human Trafficking Hits Home

May 28, 2015

Human trafficking is not just a problem in faraway lands. It happens here in America, in Ohio, in Athens County. And it doesn't happen like it does in a Liam Neeson movie. It's subtle. It's insidious. And it can be hard to spot.

"Many victims do not realize they are being trafficked," a pamphlet from the Ohio Attorney General's office warns.

More than 1,000 minors are believed to be forced to sell sex in Ohio each year, and many adults fall victim to sex and labor trafficking across the state as well, according to the latest report from the state AG's office.

Last year, two Athens County residents were sentenced to prison in a case where a 70-year-old Chauncey man paid in money and drugs to have sex with a 16-year-old girl. The man pleaded guilty to importuning and received one year in prison, while a 28-year-old woman received a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to charges of compelling prostitution, aggravated drug possession and theft.

Athens County Child Advocacy Center Director Rebecca Miller recalled her time working in juvenile court on cases where kids came into care because somebody in their home was abusing them, typically sexually. Often, the person in the home with custody knew what was going on, she recalled, but did not report it because the abuser was supplying drugs, paying the rent, or otherwise providing something of value to the custodial person.

"Essentially, there was kind of a trade-off of sexual abuse for money, drugs, whatever it was," she said. "We saw that kind of case all the time, but didn't really have a name for it until a couple years ago - at least for me, learning about human trafficking and what it was. I was able to say, 'Oh my gosh, that is trafficking.'"

She said while many people conceive of human trafficking as something that happens in the slums of poverty-stricken countries halfway around the globe, this subtle trade of sex for money or drugs is the type of trafficking that happens most often in rural Ohio, and it often involves family.

"I think there is more traditional trafficking such as what happens at truck stops that happens here too," she said. "We just don't have eyes and ears everywhere looking for it, so we don't see those types of referrals the way we think we will after we bring more awareness to this issue."

She said common places for labor trafficking include nail salons, landscaping companies, spas, massage parlors and certain restaurants (though of course, this doesn't mean that all, most or many of those types of businesses are involved).

More and more, politicians are attempting to address the problems of human trafficking with legislation. The often deeply divided U.S. House of Representatives passed a human trafficking billlast week by a vote of 420-to-3.

The AG's Ohio Human Trafficking Commission report for 2014 said that nationally, more than 100,000 children are thought to be involved in the sex trade, and in a study sample of 207 victims of trafficking in Ohio, 49 percent were under 18 when they were first trafficked.

Law enforcement around the state conducted 85 human-trafficking investigations last year, leading to 98 arrests and 17 successful criminal convictions so far. A total of 181 potential trafficking victims were identified in Ohio last year, with 147 being female and 34 male, it said. Ninety-four of them were between 16 and 20 years old, while another 50 were between 21 and 29.

In March, the Athens County Child Advocacy Center, in partnership with Hopewell Health Center, and Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services, held a free training for local law enforcement, behavioral health professionals, counselors, and social workers on human trafficking. The meeting included discussion on the formation of an Athens-based human trafficking coalition.

More training opportunities will be held this summer, said advocacy center Director Miller in an interview last month.

The role of the CAC, Miller explained, is to serve children who have been sexually abused through a multi-disciplinary team of mental-health professionals, medical-health professionals and law enforcement. In this way, a victim does not have to go first to the hospital, then to the police department, then to a social services agency. Everything happens at the CAC office on West Union Street. All of the services come to the family in one location.

Two years ago, the ACCAC received new funds from the state to expand efforts against human trafficking, Miller said, and plans are being made for more outreach in local schools, along with a general campaign to better inform the public through the efforts of a community awareness advocate.

ATHENS COUNTY SHERIFF'S Det. John Deak agreed in an interview earlier this month that instances of human trafficking in rural Ohio are relatively subtle.

"It does exist here but not in the image everybody is familiar with," he said. "A lot of it is more subtle. It can be family based. It has a lot to do with the drug problem but I think here it has a lot to do with poverty."

He likewise cited a scenario where a parent might allow the adult boyfriend of an underage daughter to stay in the house because he is helping to pay bills.

"They're getting their needs met but allowing that to happen. That kind of thing happens everyday here, all over," Deak said. "But by definition, that's human trafficking."

Labor trafficking is another concern in rural areas of Ohio such as Athens County, he said, and is also driven by poverty.

"It could be a 25-year-old man working in a field for a place to live," Deak said. "There's no set demographic as far as age, or race or gender."

AMY O'GRADY, THE OHIO Attorney General's Office director of criminal justice initiatives, said last week that the state is focused not only on helping law enforcement but helping service providers by providing resources.

"The role we play is not only to see how we help victims of crime through the investigations we do on the law enforcement end; it's also looking at the needs of the provider and making sure (communication is happening across counties)," she said.

Giving help to law enforcement, she said, continues to be an important service. She said that the AG's office has a philosophy where they don't come in and dictate what should be done by local police, but try to provide support for the action local police decide to take.

This includes training through the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy.

"It's an effort from our office to educate other agencies' requirements under Ohio Revised Code for human trafficking cases," she said. "I think that process has been very encouraging."

O'Grady also emphasized the importance of generating awareness.

"Human trafficking has always been there. The difference now is that we've put a name to it," she said. "And it's everywhere… What we try to encourage people to do is that if they see something out of the ordinary, pick up the phone and call law enforcement."

The AG's Office provides a pamphlet that shares warning signs for potential victims.

For sex trafficking, these can include a person who moves often, talks about traveling to other cities and runs away from home. A "boyfriend" who is much older can be a warning sign, or a home environment where the person seems to be controlled and is rarely alone or kept away from family and friends. Signs of physical abuse and starvation are also warning signs, as well as a lack of identification such as a driver's license or passport.

FOR LABOR TRAFFICKING, one of the biggest warning signs is the appearance that employees live at the workplace, with cots or sleeping bags visible in the back room of a business. People being trafficked for labor also may have their movement restricted - not allowed to go places - or work with a large group in a small space. Victims being labor trafficked may show signs of physical abuse, isolation or starvation. They may work long hours without being free to leave. They may lack identification, passports or immigration documents.

To report activity that may be related to human trafficking, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center 24-hour hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888.

Locally, the ACCAC holds coalition meetings the second Wednesday of every month, and those looking for more information can contact Bryttani Barker, the ACCAC child and family advocate, at 740-566-4847.

Barker said that she's looking to hold another training in August.

"We're looking at a different form, maybe bringing a survivor this time," she said. "We definitely would like to have trainings once every quarter (year)."

At the state level, the commission has promised to continue its work bringing resources to local entities, while nationally, the legislation currently heading toward President Barack Obama's desk establishes a new Child Exploitattion Investigations Unit in the Justice Department, a Cyber Crimes Center, and a computer forensics division within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to investigate child exploitation.

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