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Ohio statehouse recognizes Human Trafficking Awareness Day

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While Ohio continues to work towards statewide awareness of human trafficking, reporting rates remain high.

Thursday marks the 10th annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day at the Ohio statehouse.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Ohio has had the fourth-highest rate of human trafficking since 2016, when the trafficking rates in Ohio increased sharply and passed New York.

However, while reported human trafficking incidents have risen, there has also been an upward trend in nationwide calls and reports in recent years.

Even though Ohio’s rates are high, more people are reporting trafficking, are aware of the signs, and are sending in more tips, according to Karen Walsh, president and CEO of Collaborative to End Human Trafficking.

“One of the reasons I believe Ohio has more reported cases is that Ohio is working hard to raise awareness of this crime and to encourage people to report suspected cases of trafficking,” Walsh said. “I’m not sure that the numbers of reported cases mean that we have more trafficking than other states.”

By comparison, California, Texas, and Florida have consistently had the highest rates of trafficking reports since 2012. Michelle Hanna, the anti-human trafficking director for the Salvation Army of Central Ohio, said this may be due to the fact that these states are not only densely populated, but also located close to the Southern border and thus more prone to people being trafficked across borders.

Hanna said that while Ohio is not a border state, it has many other characteristics that may contribute to trafficking. The state’s rich highway system aids in the transport of trafficking victims; Ohio also has a large number of people trying to flee poverty or abusive family situations. The state’s ongoing opioid crisis also contributes to trafficking.

“Our state was hit very hard by the opioid crisis, and that is very intertwined with sex trafficking,” Hanna said. “With both the use of heroin and other opioids to control survivors and the intersection of people trafficking survivors and drugs, there’s a large intersection with the opioid crisis in general.”  

One final contributing factor may be Ohio’s large immigrant communities, which are common hiding places for human traffickers and their victims.

“We do have growing immigrant communities, and if traffickers are bringing someone into a more ethnically diverse community, it doesn’t stand out as much or raise flags as much,” Hanna said. “Having a diverse community is a huge strength, but it can also allow trafficking to be hidden in plain sight.”

Ohio has another thing in common with California, Florida, and other top states: concerted efforts to educate people about the impact of trafficking and encourage them to report tips.

In particular, Ohio has stuck with grassroots efforts, led by 24 local coalitions around the state, which assist nearly every Ohio county. The Ohio Attorney General’s office has also been consistently involved in mobilizing law enforcement and creating legislative work to help investigate and prosecute cases of human trafficking.

In 2012, Ohio was the 12th highest state in the nation, with only 81 reported cases. This past year, that number stood at 219 reported cases. The highest recent number of reports was 375 in 2016. Hanna says while there is not one way to tell why there were increases in reports after 2012 and then again after 2016, there have been a few key initiatives that encouraged people to report tips for trafficking during those years.

In 2012, former Gov. Kasich started Ohio’s Human Trafficking Task Force, which organized all the state’s cabinet-level agencies around ending trafficking. Then, in 2015, Ohio was able to secure the federal Look Beneath the Surface grant, which is given out to four Ohio communities in order to assist with outreach and public awareness efforts.

These statewide efforts remain essential because local coalitions continue to uncover trafficking issues all over the state.

“We’re a 14-county coalition, and everywhere we’ve mobilized around this issue, we’ve found a problem,” Hanna said. “We’ve never gone into a county and come back and said ‘oh, they’re fine, there’s nothing here.’”

Over the past several years, the Salvation Army has been part of several awareness campaigns, which include putting the human trafficking hotline number on benches at bus stops and broadcasting public service announcements on English and Spanish language radio stations. They have also conducted training sessions for emergency room professionals, educators, and law enforcement.

They also participated in a campaign, which involved putting bars of soap labeled with the national hotline in hotel and truck stop bathrooms, where victims might be able to see them.

“I absolutely believe that trafficking is preventable and not something we have to tolerate in our communities,” Hanna said. “We have a million things to still do, but we have some of the right players in the right places.”

To get help or report a tip, call the national hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

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