Because of its location and extensive highway system, Ohio is one of the regions where the crime of human trafficking is growing.
Human traffickers make their money by forcing children and adults into prostitution and/or slave labor. Many of the victims often are underage runaways or immigrants who are lured by false promises of work.
Worldwide, an estimated 21 million men, women and children become victims of human trafficking, netting $150 billion a year for the criminals who perpetrate it.
On June 30, 2014, the United Nations designated its first World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. In a statement, UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay urged governments to take aggressive action.
“Every government has a responsibility to fight it, both directly—through investigations and prosecutions—and in the deeper sense of serious and sustained efforts at prevention,” he said.
In 2015, the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission identified 203 trafficking victims, including 60 minors. Of that number, 197 were for the sex trade. Law-enforcement officials throughout the state conducted 102 criminal investigations last year, resulting in more than 100 arrests and 33 convictions.
Attorney General Mike DeWine told the Columbus Dispatch, “I think there’s more going on that is substantiated by these statistics. Human trafficking is in front of us, but many times, we don’t recognize that or understand that.”
Experts say the typical victim is a young, white female who is forced into prostitution or to work in strip clubs. Some are kidnapped, while others are tricked by someone they trust, such as a boyfriend or an older adult friend.
In recent years, the state strengthened its anti-trafficking laws to impose harsher punishment for traffickers. In 2015, the state successfully prosecuted 33 people for trafficking, which is a felony offense.
Ohio has been aggressive. There are 21 anti-trafficking coalitions serving 66 of the state’s 88 counties. However, the state still does not have a law in place where trafficking counts as a standalone charge.
This year, the state passed a new law requiring truck-driving schools to train new students on how to recognize the signs of possible human trafficking. Some Ohio Highway Patrol posts have made space available for the training at their offices.
Nationally, the Salvation Army services include trafficking prevention. The citadel in Massillon had two cases in which they were able to rescue victims, said Rebecca “Becky” Mathess, the ministry’s social services director and housing outreach specialist. Mathess said she believes it’s a growing problem, but isn’t sure why Ohio is so attractive.
“I had a young girl and her baby from Detroit that were being held against her will in a drug house,” Mathess said. “They were trafficking her for sex. I got her into a motel, and I called our Michigan affiliate. I found out she was homeless in Michigan. The next day, we got her a bus ticket and took her to the bus stop. They (affiliate) met her at the station with a sign. They got her into a shelter.”
Mathess said the second case involved a victim from Cuyahoga County who had a mental illness.
“She had tattoos and markings on her like she was a sex slave,” Mathess said. “I took her to the Crisis Center.”
Mathess recalled that the victim also had fastenings on her wrists and waist.
“She was scared for her life,” she said. “We called the trafficking hotline and got her a case number through there. It’s sickening that such a thing is going on close to us and in our world.”
Mathess said there are local people online looking for sex slaves.
“That’s the kind of stuff you see in the movies,” she said. “The kind of stuff we sit and watch and go to the movies for, but this stuff is going on in our backyard, and we don’t even know it.”
Mathess advises people to just be aware. Signs of possible enslavement include bruises, exhaustion, extreme hunger and fear, say experts.
As part of her ministry, Sister Karen Bernhardt has helped to lead local efforts to fight human trafficking, an insidious crime which is hidden in broad daylight.
PATH, or Partners Against Trafficking of Humans, Stark County works with hospitals, law enforcement, churches, schools and other entities to educate the public about human trafficking and to help those who are trying to escape it.
Hotels, restaurants, migrant camps, nail salons and construction sites frequently are problem areas where forced labor is supplied via human trafficking.
“A lot has developed in the last years and a half since 2011,” she said. “We were able to form a continuum of care with other social service agencies, with police and just a multitude of people who work with the victims. That has grown exponentially.”
Bernhardt said that a task force for juvenile victims has been meeting for a year.
“We have 30 members, which is really looking at possibly a special (court) docket for the minors,” she said. “That’s what we’re leading toward. Because of the Safe Harbor Law in Ohio, we can get resources for those identified as victims who are under 18. There’s also a mentoring group, Hannah’s House 119, who is helping us already.”
Bernhardt said PATH Stark County also is consulting with Rahab Ministries in Akron, which is planning to open a home for juvenile victims.
Bernhardt said PATH Stark County also has conducted summer mentoring and education programs at local schools.
According to authorities, Ohio ranks fifth in the U.S. for human trafficking.
“We have so many routes that go north, south, east and west so the victims can easily be transported,” Bernhardt said. “I think what has really helped is Toledo formed a task force in the mid-2000s with police, and now that has happened with Stark County. We work with the FBI, local police, the Highway Patrol and the sheriff, and that has made a big difference.”
Bernhardt said there are a number of ways people can help.
“PATH does a lot of presentations to groups,” she said, “If they would like to be educated, contact us. There’s mentoring or being involved in a coalition. There are many creative ways for people being involved; it’s really spreading in lots of good ways.”
PATH participated in the International Freedom Walk in October.
“There are different places we try to be, like First Friday,” Bernhardt said. “We were at the Stark County Fair. We go to the libraries and the museums.
“I’m excited that more and more people are interested in this important issue. So many people from all walks of life and ages are getting involved.”
For more information, contact PATH by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit its Facebook page at facebook.com/pathstark1.
800 Market St., Canton
PATH Stark County is an initiative of volunteers who create strategies and mobilize assistance to victims of human trafficking. The group was co-founded by Sister Karen Bernhardt of Canton. For more information, contact PATH by email at email@example.com or visit its Facebook page at facebook.com/pathstark1.
Canton Post Ohio Highway Patrol joined with Truckers Against Trafficking, a national organization formed to help train long-distance truck drivers to recognize the signs of trafficking. This year, Ohio passed a law requiring driving schools to train students to recognize potential trafficking. For more information, contact Sgt. Eli Rivera at 330-433-6200.
Canton Post Ohio Highway Patrol
4711 Shuffel St. NW, North Canton
Truckers Against Trafficking
315 6th St NE, Massillon, 330-833-6473
The Salvation Army has an initiative at each of its citadels to help fight human trafficking. Rebecca Mathess is director of social services at the Salvation Army Citadel in Massillon. She can be reached by calling 330-833-6473 or 330-844-3374.
Stark County Prosecutor’s Office
110 Central Plaza S, Canton, 330-451-7897
Stark County Sheriff’s Department
4500 Atlantic Blvd. NE, Canton
call 911, or 330-430-3800
Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force (state)
To report a trafficking tip, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.
National Human Trafficking Hotline and Resource Center
888-373-7888, or text HELP to 2337333