By Louise Davidson
On January 15, 2015, concerned citizens and lawmakers met for the sixth annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day at the Ohio State House. In the morning, a series of speakers were introduced by State Representative Teresa Fedor, who was a state senator from Toledo when she began her crusade against human trafficking. In 2007, arrests in Toledo made it clear to her that Toledo is a destination and I-70 is a major route for traffickers. She initiated legislation to increase penalties for this crime. Since then, as a state representative, she has succeeded in getting two additional pieces of legislation passed, the Safe Harbor Act and the End Demand Act, which mandates stiffer penalties for “johns.”
Speakers for the day included U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portsmouth, U.S. Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, who has initiated human trafficking legislation in the U.S. Congress, and staff from the Ohio’s Attorney General’s Human Trafficking office. Other speakers were from Reed Elsevier (a global data center), the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking and the Underground Freedom Center. Ohio Governor John Kasich also spoke. (Author's note: Beatty’s national legislation is essentially a Safe Harbor Act [HR-246], which means that those trafficked under the federal definition of trafficking—there is force, fraud or coercion—can have their records expunged so there is no permanent criminal record. Safe Harbor Laws protect, rather than criminalize, victims.)
Keynote speaker Judge Paul M Herbert, Franklin County municipal judge, explained his CATCH Court—Changing Actions to Change Habits. He said that women arrested for prostitution in Franklin County are given an opportunity to enter a two-year program to recover from drug dependency and learn skills for healthy living. Franklin County has had considerable success with this program. Some graduates of the program are now involved in a catering business that has been in business for several years. In fact, that business, Freedom a la Cart, catered lunch that day!
Judge Herbert's presentation was the best I’ve heard in six years of attending human trafficking days at the state capitol. He explained that Franklin County had received a grant for first treating the trauma that trafficking victims suffer. Traditional practice has been to start with drug treatment. Herbert said that when the program starts with drug treatment, 80 percent of the women leave the first chance they get, but when the program begins with trauma treatment, 80 percent of the women stay with the program.
Judge Herbert noted that a major problem in treating the victims of human trafficking is that there is no facility to hold these women together, and that jail cells are not conducive to recovery. This is a particular problem regarding girls under 18 who by virtue of their ages cannot be held with the general prison population. Since 13 is the age when most girls are taken for trafficking, this is a major problem for the police and the courts.
In the afternoon, a law and legal panel that included representatives from state and local police, the FBI, Juvenile, Municipal and Common Pleas courts, Legal Aid and the Attorney General’s Office, as well as legal advocates and a public defender, spoke about legislation and implementation.
There was considerable discussion of the Ohio's Safe Harbor Act. Two and a half years since passage, there is still confusion about what it means, and some doubt about whether all courts even know it exists, so there is training going on to develop sensitivity to the situation of trafficking victims. This act makes it illegal for Back Page (a website) to advertise girls under 18 as dates or companions. In the course of the discussion, it was noted that the justice system needs to do more for girls/women ages 18-25 since this is the fastest growing segment of the prison population and there are no services for this group.
Discussion of a uniform U.S. law on human trafficking acknowledged the difficulties since some states are far ahead of the curve on legislation and are reluctant to begin processes to reach conformity across the U.S. It is likely to take a long time to get this straightened out.
A rural woman asked the panel members what she might do in her community since she didn’t see the evidence of trafficking that cities see. A panelist suggested that she convene a roundtable with law enforcement, crime victim advocates, and those who deal with kids and domestic abuse, to raise awareness, or join a service provider network.
The issue of foreign-born victims was raised. In those situations, panelists said, there is always fraud, even if there is no coercion. For the victims, exploitation is often in homes and small factories or businesses such as nail salons. There is a need to train health inspectors, cable installers, electricians, all those who provide services in homes and businesses, on how to recognize the signs of people being trafficked.
During a survivors' panel, Theresa Flores, who wrote about her experience in The Slave Across the Street, told of how she, as a 15-year-old upper middle class student in a suburb of Detroit, was coerced, drugged, beaten and raped for two years by men involved in drug trafficking. Theresa was part of a group that began a shelter for underage victims in Columbus. Another survivor hired to work in the courthouse still seems surprised about her change of fortune. Those whose recovery is more recent were more reticent. All but Theresa Flores had troubling childhoods, and several were reluctant to be critical of their parents since they recognized that their parents had their own trauma.
Gracehaven, the shelter in Columbus, was founded in 2008 to address the huge need for rehabilitation for victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The organization seeks not only to provide a residential group home for girls under the age of 18 who are survivors, but to raise awareness, train social service providers, and provide outreach and comprehensive case management to victims.
While many states are making progress in training service providers such as police and healthcare workers to recognize and respond to victims appropriately, and passing laws to aid victims instead of convicting them, what we are learning is that the next most-immediate need is for programs and shelters like Gracehaven where healing and transformation of lives can take place.
For more about what you can do to end human trafficking, see resources on Presbyterian Women's Justice and Peace web page.