Cincinnati used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, a gateway to freedom in the North for slaves escaping servitude in the South. Now the Queen City is a stop along an invisible human trafficking highway and home to contemporary slaves.
Ask anyone here about modern day slavery, and they're likely to make a vague reference to Asia or Africa if they don't respond with the usual statement that slavery was abolished in the U.S. Few would say that slaves might be working at night cleaning their favorite big-box store.
That lack of awareness is what the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is trying to change.
"Unfortunately, slavery does exist today," says Kathleen Y.S. Davis, director of the Contemporary Slavery Programs' Partnership for Human Freedom. "It happens in Cincinnati. It happens in Ohio. It happens nationally, internationally."
That's why she travels to local high schools, colleges and universities all over the country and participates in training programs for law enforcement, social service agencies and grassroots organizations wanting to learn more about contemporary slavery, also known as human trafficking (see "Of Human Bondage," issue of Feb. 13).
"When we say 'slavery,' people tend to think of chattel slavery of the 1800s," Davis says.
"It's a little different from that. Today it's the control, through violence or threat of violence, for the purpose of economic exploitation, where an individual loses his or her free will."
Davis says there are an estimated 12 million to 27 million slaves worldwide, "and those are considered very conservative estimates." Between 14,000 and 17,000 foreign nationals are brought into the U.S. as human trafficking victims, and the numbers don't count American citizens caught up in the practice.
Given the underground nature of human trafficking to supply labor for domestic work, construction and the sex industry, it can be difficult to identify victims, even for those who are trained to spot the signs and symptoms of a person who's being victimized.
"Our alcohol and other drug addiction professionals have been trained that if they see or suspect signs of sexual or physical abuse they are to report the suspected abuse to the proper authorities," says Amanda Conn Starner, chief of communications at the Ohio Department of Alcohol Drug Addiction Services.
"We saw that there was a low awareness of human trafficking and the impact that it has on the victim and the surrounding communities."
That's why Davis was invited to present at the Women's Wellness Symposium hosted by the department earlier this year, according to Starner.
"It was important for us to bring this topic to our alcohol and drug addiction professionals that serve Ohio. Those are the people that were a part of the symposium," she says. "As we know, victims of abuse turn to substances to cope with any situation they are in and will, in essence, self-medicate to get by due to the anxiety and trauma that they're enduring. It's important that our treatment professionals understand that the human trafficking issue is out there and very relevant to Ohio."
But getting people to recognize human trafficking as a threat worthy of attention can be difficult when the federal government didn't address it until passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000.
"The federal government has asked states to pass similar legislation so that there's penalties against a trafficker and also provisions to assist victims that are identified," Davis says. "Currently there are 31 states that have human trafficking provisions. There is a trend of state recognizing that human trafficking is an issue in their state."
The state of Ohio has three bills pending that would define human trafficking as a crime, giving officials a way to identify situations of involuntary servitude, debt bondage or other circumstances that constitute slavery. House Bill 15 and Senate Bills 23 and 205 are currently working their way to a vote.
But community members, more than politicians, are the primary audience for Davis.
"We tend to focus locally first in giving people ideas of what they can do in their communities," she says. "One (idea) is to contact local leaders and ask if they have protocols in identifying victims and, if they do, do they know what to do with them: contacting local legislators to see if they're co-sponsoring or working on any legislation on modern day slavery."
Bringing together existing support agencies and community groups is another way to share information.
"That's why you see in the last couple of years -- task forces and coalitions or people from various fields all the way from social work to law enforcement -- getting together and trying to develop a mechanism to assist victims locally," Davis says. "A homeless shelter may already be working with victims and not realizing it.
"The goal of the Cincinnati coalition is pulling all those people together who are working on these human rights issues and civil right issues and letting then know that human trafficking might be a part of what they're working on. ... There may be more resources as a team."
Starner says the state's addiction services department is adding human trafficking education to every seminar and symposium it can. And she wants everyone in Ohio to know that its hot line (800-788-7254), which typically used as a resource for alcohol or drug assistance, will also help connect victims of human trafficking with resources.
It's this kind of collaboration that will help Ohioans understand and come to grips with the magnitude of the problem, Davis says.
"Some people don't believe it exists in the U.S. at all ... until you give them American examples," she says. "Then you have some groups that don't want to address it at all because it's opening a can of worms. It's such a tough subject that it takes people a while to realize that it's happening.
"(People) need to learn that it's not an issue for other countries, it happens in the U.S., it happens in their communities, it may potentially happen to their neighbor or their own children."
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