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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2011

Keep heat on traffickers

LEGISLATORS are good at passing laws. It's what they do. But too often after a law is passed, they - and the public - assume incorrectly that the job is done and they can turn to other matters. That can't be allowed to happen with the issue of human trafficking.

Last month, then-Gov. Ted Strickland signed a bill that made human trafficking a second-degree felony in Ohio, punishable by as much as eight years in prison. It goes into effect at the end of March.

That's a start, but it will not by itself end the practice of forced labor and sex trafficking, often involving children, that is a scourge and a disgrace in Toledo and across Ohio. And it will take more than the verbal support of new Gov. John Kasich and new Attorney General Mike DeWine to put a stop to modern-day slavery.

In 2005, a federal sting in Harrisburg, Pa., and an award-winning series in The Blade about teenage prostitution laid bare the sordid details of the forced-sex trade, exposing Toledo as a recruiting center for girls as young as 10 years old. The public outrage was immediate, and led to passage of the human-trafficking bill.

Yet there was little media coverage of last Monday's second annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Columbus. Men and businesses, without whom success in combating human slavery is unlikely, were poorly represented at the event.

If Ohio wants to end this 21st-century slave trade, lawmakers and the public must remain engaged. There are several things to be done.

State Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), a sponsor of the landmark bill, says local law enforcement agencies know who the pimps and other traffickers are. Investigating, arresting, charging, and prosecuting them should be a priority in Toledo, in Lucas County, and across the state.

The General Assembly should answer Governor Kasich's call to "get it done" by passing the Safe Harbor Act, which would require that children under 18 who are picked up in prostitution stings be treated not as criminals but as the victims they are.

Services for victims of human trafficking must be improved. Currently, there are only 50 beds in shelters in the entire country designated for minors rescued from human trafficking operations. Ohio may open its first home for minor victims later this year. More will be needed.

More also must be done to address the demand side of the equation. Businesses must face strong penalties for employing forced labor. And law enforcement should make an example of customers of the sex trade, especially involving children.

If society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable member, then Ohio has made progress. But the job is not done until human trafficking becomes a thing of the past.

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