Child sex slaves sold today in the Tri-State

Ohio has a sex slavery problem. That's according to state lawmakers.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in the Ohio House unanimously passed legislation that would increase penalties for those caught forcing young people to have sex with strangers for money. House Bill 262 now heads to the Senate for approval. It would toughen the penalties for people convicted of human trafficking. H.B. 262 will also provide more protection and services to victims. Instead of being prosecuted, young victims will receive aid and services to help them heal.

But how widespread is the problem in the Tri-State?

Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine has been working with leaders across the state to solve the problem.

"Human trafficking is occurring every day in front of us and we don't know it," said Dewine.

In 2009, a report was conducted for the Attorney General's office estimating that "...of those American born youth in Ohio, 2,879 are at-risk for sex trafficking, and another 1,078 youth have been trafficked into the sex trade over the course of a year."

Mary Richie said it's not just a problem in Ohio.

Richie works with the Women's Crisis Center in Covington. In 2008, she founded P.A.T.H.or Partnership Against the Trafficking of Humans. The program is a victim-centered partnership of professional and community organizations devoted to the Prevention of human trafficking through education and training; Protecting victims through rescue and holistic services; and ensuring the Prosecution of traffickers through legal advocacy.

In Kentucky, a bill that would have assisted in stopping trafficking in Kentucky died last week in the State Senate. House Bill 350 would have held traffickers (buyers and sellers of men/women/children) accountable for their actions.

"The average age of entry into prostitution into the United States is 13 years old," said Richie. "Some of the cases that we've had are in Ft. Wright; are in Ft Thomas; are in Villa Hills."

Erin Meyer agreed. She is the Coalition Manager for End Slavery Cincinnati.

"Human trafficking is certainly an issue here in Cincinnati," said Meyer. "Sex trafficking can be found in massage parlors and street prostitution, which are present in any city or rural town, and labor trafficking can be found in restaurants and factories in the Tri-State."

"This is a billion, billion dollar industry," said Richie. "One of the fastest industries in the world. You can sell a line of coke once. You can sell a person over and over and over again."

Researchers say the problem is driven by a demand for cheap labor in a booming X-rated business. A 2010 trafficking study reports Ohio is a major player; Toledo is a major supplier.

Toledo Police Detective Pete Swartz now spends his days working for the state's only paid task force. Sometimes the children are kept as you'd imagine in places like a migrant farm house in Northern Ohio while being forced to have sex with strangers 24/7.

In 2009, Toledo ranked fourth in the country when it came to arrests, investigations, and rescue of sex trafficking victims. Only Miami, Portland, and Las Vegas had more, but FBI agents told FOX19 the problem lives all over the state, including here in Cincinnati.

"I think we've been successful up here in Northwest Ohio because we've really made an effort to target and attack the issue so we have been able to find more," said FBI Supervisory Senior Agent David Dustin. "I think if you look for it you'll find it."

Advocates say that is the problem in Cincinnati.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. Victims of human trafficking are young children, teenagers, men and women. According to P.A.T.H., approximately 600,000 to 800,000 victims annually are trafficked across international borders worldwide, making it the third largest illegal market after drugs and arms.

Cincinnati police tell us that to date, various CPD personnel have attended a total of seven classes since 2006. However, advocates said it's tough to tackle the issue unless you have a targeted approach.

Agent Dustin said the problem was first exposed in Toledo in 2005 after a federal investigation into a child prostitution ring in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Most of the men arrested had ties to Ohio. A year later, the FBI organized the Northwest Ohio Innocence Lost Task Force. The paid task force is comprised of federal, local, and county authorities.

Members have cracked down on trafficking by arresting dozens of traffickers and pimps. Last week, prosecutor Jim Maroney said the group claimed another victory by sentencing juvenile sex trafficker Mark Fetter to the maximum allowed -- ten years.

"The task force that aggressively works these cases intercepted a 17 year old who was engaged in prostitution out of a place called the Sunset Motel," said Maroney.

Maroney said a prostitute called police after watching several men go in and out of a motel room of a young girl.

Survivor Theresa Flores said nobody called a number for her.

She now answers the call for help for countless victims of human trafficking. Flores was raised in an affluent Catholic neighborhood outside of Detroit. At 15 years old, Flores became a sex slave.

"Probably one of the biggest signs would have been older guys always around me," said Flores. "My demeanor changed a lot."

She said for two years she went to school with her abusers.

Ohio Governor John Kasich said Flores isn't alone.

"It is a problem that we thought only happened in other countries," said Governor Kasich. "In other places, but it is a serious problem in Ohio."

Governor Kasich said too many children are victims. In late March, he decided to do something about it. Governor Kasich signed an executive order to create the Human Trafficking Task Force. He gathered representatives from across the state with the goal of educating and examining the problem. No money has been set aside for the group.

"I love my kids, and I've warned my wife about letting them be out alone and all that, but this is not just about my children," said Gov. Kasich. "It's about every child in Ohio who could become a victim."


It's a loaded word for some people who still call the young people picked up for prostitution offenders. State leaders say we must first change the words we use when describing this issue, and then we must change the laws.

Just ask State Rep. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo. She sponsored HB 262.

"I just can't imagine if you're kidnapped and trapped into this crime, and you're 14, 15, or 16 or even 17," said State Rep. Fedor. "Why would we put you through the jail system to get the services if you're a victim?"

Members of the Governor's task force will work with Ohio Attorney General Dewine's Trafficking Commission.

Attorney General DeWine reconvened the Human Trafficking Commission in August of 2011.  It was originally created using the work of the Trafficking in Persons Study Commission, which was created under previous Attorney General Richard Cordray.  The Commission includes elected and appointed officials, members of local, state, and federal law enforcement, public and private social agencies, religious groups, and schools. Members meet regularly to understand the extent of the problem in Ohio, find ways to help victims, and discover how to investigate and prosecute traffickers.

"That person is a victim," said Attorney General DeWine. "They're being victimized by somebody. It may be the pimp. It may be an organization that has literally grabbed them off the street."

Often, advocates said the victims are forced to work at motels, hotels, and truck stops.

"Your first reaction is this is despicable," said Rodney Bresnahan, Regional Director for Travel America Centers of America. "Your second reaction is what can we do to help."

Last year, Travel America travel centers, like the one in Florence, Kentucky, paired up with the organization Truckers against Trafficking (TAT).

All employees must now go through training to recognize the signs of human trafficking. customers are asked to get involved, as well. As truckers come in to get a bite to eat or to relax for a few minutes, they're encouraged to take a wallet card or a brochure from TAT. The phone number of the local police department is also posted outside.

Bresnahan said it's working.

"We did have one incident a few months ago in Washington state," said Bresnahan. "One of our managers noticed two young girls walked in with an older gentleman. The older gentleman did not appear to be a friend or relative of theirs. The girls appeared to be unsure of their surroundings so better safe than sorry."

Experts said the problem is that more people don't recognize the victims. They are from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

"I think part of it, too, we've been afraid to look at it," said Richie of P.A.T.H. "Afraid to ask those questions. We don't want to talk about pornography. We don't want to talk about our families or husbands buying prostitution at a massage parlor. We don't want to talk about those things, but because we're not talking about it, it's flourishing."

Last Friday, Richie held a one-day training for clinical staff of the Northern Kentucky Health Department. Dozens of workers met with several speakers. The focus was on getting the medical world in this region paying attention to problem of human trafficking. Richie said staff could be the first line of defense and often they could come in contact with victims and not know it.

But FBI agents said the pimps and traffickers know  too well who is vulnerable and literally prey upon the young adults and children.

"Typically they come from the inner city," said FBI Agent Dustin. "Homes that are either broken homes. They don't have the best home lives, but we do see some come from the suburbs."

As for the johns? Flores said they're your average guys.

"Any color. Any economic background. Any educational background. Any age," said Flores. "I was giving my story at a john school in Columbus a couple of years ago and there was an 80 year old man sitting there with oxygen, and I thought oh my gosh!"

Flores added that places once thought safe, such as restaurants and movie theaters, aren't anymore.

"{The pimps} befriend these girls," said Agent Dustin. "It'll start off as a boyfriend/girlfriend type relationship, or they'll tell them they love her, and it'll be the first time or the first time in a long time they're told that they're loved."

Agent Dustin said, sadly, trafficking is often a family business.

"Because enforcement was not aggressive in the past, whether it was just not really strong laws or nobody was really taking a good hard look at the pimps themselves, that kind of perpetuated itself," said Agent Dustin. "Year after year after year they stayed in the business and brought family members into the business."

Jeff Barrows agreed.

Barrows founded Gracehaven in Columbus. It's a non-profit organization that provides a shelter for adolescent girls who have been commercially sexually exploited in central Ohio. In 2005, he was asked by the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons to research the health consequences of human trafficking.

"It's a crime that is not going to be obvious," said Barrows. "A lot of people mistakenly think that these girls are out walking the street; the Internet is the new street."

Investigators said the girls are often advertised online and meetings are set up at local hot spots-- including restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, and even casinos. Some critics have said that the opening of the new casino in Cincinnati will only exacerbate the problem in Cincinnati.

Governor Kasich said he's confident that won't be the case.

"As you know, I've had my disagreements with them," said Gov. Kasich. "Got a few more dollars out of them, which was important, but my disagreements should at least give me the credibility on issues like this that they will do the right thing."

The right thing also includes bringing closure to survivors like Flores. She said that she has never confronted her abusers.

We asked her what she would say to them today.

"Probably I forgive you," Flores said.

Forgiveness for a war over innocence lost.

Ohio H.B. 262 is expected to reach the Senate floor later this week.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office has established a hotline to report any information they might have about human trafficking: 1-855-BCI-OHIO (224-6446).

You can also call the national hotline: 1-888-3737-8888.


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