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Seven years after Toledo police and the FBI uncovered a nationwide sex trafficking ring operating in Toledo, human rights advocates continue to call for heightened awareness and stricter regulations in Ohio.
In the first day of a two-day community forum at the Hotel @ UTMC, the Ohio Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights met Wednesday with the state’s leading human trafficking experts to discuss Ohio’s status as one of the five worst states for human trafficking.
“This is the biggest human rights issue today in our lifetime,” said Celia Williamson, professor of social work and criminal justice at the University of Toledo. “... If you are not [emotionally disturbed], something may be wrong. Keep this emotional disturbance as a reminder to be moved to action.”
The advisory committee had unanimously chosen to investigate the topic after Diane E. Citrino, chairman and 10-year committee member, suggested the committee follow up and monitor the changes made since Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine reconvened the Human Trafficking Commission.
Ms. Citrino, an attorney in Cleveland, said the committee chose to convene in Toledo because of its status as a national hub for human trafficking.
The panelists explained that 12, 13, and 14 year olds from broken homes are targeted for sex trafficking. While the state has had some success in combating sex trafficking, Melinda Sykes Haggerty, director of children’s initiatives for the Ohio attorney general, said there needs to be better data collection, continued training of prosecutors, judges, and the media, and a greater recognition that children might be victims of crimes rather than simply runaways.
Carole Rendon, first assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, also said the state has seen less success combating labor trafficking and that people need to look for it in nail salons, restaurants, and other businesses.
The Ohio Advisory Committee is composed of 17 people. They are appointed every two years by the Commission on Civil Rights.
Sister Geraldine Nowak of Sylvania, one of seven attendees, said she “resented” what she learned but thought the forum was “comprehensive and excellent.”
Darlene Sweeney-Newbern, 54, a lifelong Toledo resident and regional director of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, said she came to the conference to learn more about human trafficking in Toledo.
“This is an American tragedy and we need to come together to combat this problem. These are a hidden group of people that we have to support and learn more about,” she said.
Former Toledo trafficker Deric Willoughby — who was convicted seven years ago of federal charges of conspiracy to traffic in prostitution for taking a 15-year-old girl and her 14-year-old cousin to Michigan to be sold for sex — was scheduled to speak Wednesday. However, he canceled after he received negative attention from advocates who believe that he has not truly reformed, said David J. Mussatt, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Midwestern regional office director.
After the forum adjourns today, committee members will draft a report that includes recommendations for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Today’s panels start at 9 a.m. and will feature testimony from trafficking survivors, human rights advocates, and state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), whose human trafficking legislation became law last year.
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