Since 2010, Ohio has woken up to the realities of its human trafficking problem. Back then, the state was considered to be among “the worst states” — or tier 4 — by the Polaris Project, an organization focused on the nationwide issue of human trafficking. To make it worse, most of Ohio’s neighbors fared better. Kentucky and Pennsylvania were tier 3 states, and Indiana was a tier 2 state. Among Ohio’s neighbors, only West Virginia was also ranked tier 4.
That same year, the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission released a study that found as many as 1,000 American-born youth had been involved in human trafficking in Ohio that year. The study also found that 3,000 American-born youth in Ohio were at risk for human trafficking.
Ohio has made some improvements since then. In the 2012 report by the Polaris Project, Ohio was among the “Most Improved States of 2012,” and it earned a tier 1 rank. The move up was largely thanks to H.B. 262, which outlawed human trafficking and placed tougher rules against human trafficking. Gov. John Kasich signed the bill into law earlier this year, and Ohio became one of the 28 states to pass anti-human trafficking laws in the past year.
But there is still work to be done. A new report released by the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission has offered hard facts and data about the human trafficking issue in the state. The report looked at 328 self-identified victims of human trafficking around Ohio, including some victims from Cincinnati.
The report found that one-third of the victims had been involved in human trafficking since before the age of 18. Among the victims, 63 percent had run away from home at least once, 59 percent reported having friends involved in selling, 47 percent were raped more than a year before being trafficked and 44 percent reported to being victims of child abuse.
In Cincinnati, the most common risk factors reported were dropping out of school and having an older boyfriend. Rape was the third most common risk factor, with 40 percent of Cincinnati victims reporting being raped.
The most common buyers for victims in Ohio were law enforcement officials.
James Pond is head of Transitions Global, a Cincinnati-based international group that helps combat human trafficking. The group originally started with a focus on Cambodia, but as the group found success, it began deploying help — largely by request from other groups — around the world, including the United States.
Pond says that even though Ohio has made improvements, the state has a long way to go.
“If you asked me if laws and policies have improved in Ohio, the answer would be yes,” Pond says. “But I think it’s extremely difficult with the amount of resources that are put on (human trafficking) for law enforcement to really investigate these kinds of cases.”
Pond says Ohio’s services for victims of human trafficking are “atrociously absent.”
“I know some organizations that have made some attempts to provide services to victims, but in terms of federal, state and county funding, it’s abysmal,” Pond says.
Pond says the limited resources make it much more difficult to identify and help victims. He also says it makes it difficult for law enforcement to tackle the issue. When it does come up in police departments, Pond fears that the issue is not treated as seriously in the face of other issues, such as gang enforcement, drug issues and homicide cases.
“Human trafficking becomes a distraction when there’s not a dedicated service arm to investigating human trafficking cases,” he says.
The Cincinnati Police Department says it is making some headway on the issue. Kimberly Williams, a spokesperson for CPD, says officers have been undergoing training for dealing with human trafficking. The Cincinnati Police Department has also been pushing human trafficking measures in training bulletins that go out to the entire department.
Even if law enforcement officials are given proper resources and training, there is also the problem of law enforcement officials being common buyers in human trafficking. These are the people that are supposed to protect the public from human trafficking, yet they seem to be common abusers at a state — but not local — level, according to the attorney general report.
Pond is a little skeptical of the law enforcement statistic. From personal experience, he knows there are a good amount of law enforcement officials that abuse human trafficking, but he’s not sure if they make up a plurality of buyers. But if it is true, Pond has an explanation for why.
“When you look at the issue of prostitution, it’s not so much about sex as it is about power,” he says. Since law enforcement officials have an extreme amount of power relative to the rest of the population, this might make it more likely and possible for law enforcement to take advantage of human trafficking victims.
As far as any other stereotype regarding buyers, Pond says he sees very few patterns at a global level: “Buyers range in age from 23 to 73, and they cross every ethnic boundary and every religious boundary. I don’t know if there is a stereotypical buyer.”
In Ohio, Pond says he has seen some patterns. Buyers are typically married, middle-class males between the ages of 25 and 55.
The findings of the attorney general report pushed Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to ask for new rules. The new rules would identify trafficking as child abuse, place a focus on arresting and convicting buyers and invest in responding to adult sex trafficking. The commission also wants a better response to youth runaways, and it wants to establish better protocols for dealing with at-risk youth, especially in correspondence with school officials. ©