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Bill would extend protections for sex trafficking victims

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    In this file photo, State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) speaks with area residents during a forum held at Start High School.

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    Ohio State Representative Tavia Galonski.

COLUMBUS —The loudest voice in the General Assembly on human trafficking argues that traffickers who engage in modern-day slavery sometimes avoid prosecution because of Ohio’s two-tiered system of handling cases involving minors.

State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) and Rep. Tavia Galonski (D., Akron) recently introduced a bill to expand Ohio’s so-called “safe harbor” protections to all minors — treating them more like victims rather than criminals when picked up for trafficking-related offenses like prostitution.

“My goal from the beginning was to protect all minors equally,” Ms. Fedor said. “I believe Ohio law should apply national standards for children under 18.”

Ms. Fedor has long been frustrated by a provision in a 2012 law that drew a distinction between cases involving 16 and 17-year-olds, and cases involving younger minors. In order to bring a charge of “trafficking in persons” against human traffickers, the prosecution must take the extra step in cases involving 16 or 17-year-olds of showing that the accused was the minor’s parent, guardian, teacher, coach, or some other person with authority over the minor.

Federal law makes no such distinction, and House Bill 461 would repeal that requirement in Ohio law.

“In my mind, this does not make sense,” Ms. Fedor said. “A minor is anyone under 18. We make the vulnerable more vulnerable.”

The bill would also remove a provision in current law requiring the showing in delinquency cases that a minor charged with prostitution or a similar act is a trafficking victim in order to be eligible for treatment, counseling, and other programs as an alternative to prosecution.

Once the minor completes the alternative program, the record of the criminal case would be expunged.

The new legislation comes during national Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Local groups are marking the month with a handful of events. The Hancock County Chapter of the Northwest Ohio Restore Anti-Human Trafficking Commission on Thursday held a panel discussion at the University of Findlay’s Memorial Union.

On Saturday, the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition will hold its third annual multifaith prayer breakfast. Amy LaGessee, the coalition’s regional grant coordinator, said the breakfast and prayer service are intended to increase awareness of labor and sex trafficking.

Celia Williamson, director of the University of Toledo's Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute, will be the keynote speaker. She noted the ongoing case of three Toledo pastors indicted for human sex trafficking minors, saying churches aren’t immune to the issue.

“Humans are humans, and human beings have faults,” she said. “We have to look at everybody.”

Religious groups often provide a number of services trafficking victims need when they are rescued, like clothing, food, housing, and transportation assistance.

“Once we’re able to disconnect them from their trafficker, they have nothing,” Ms. LaGesse said.

The event will run from 10 a.m. to noon at the United Auto Workers Local 12 Hall, 2300 Ashland Ave., with doors opening at 9:30 a.m.

The coalition’s monthly meetings are also open to the public. The group meets at 9:15 a.m. the third Wednesday of every month at the Kent Branch Library, 3101 Collingwood Blvd. 

A separate bill before lawmakers, House Bill 56, seeks to expand the types of convictions for which trafficking victims could have records sealed. The measure is sponsored by Reps. Jonathan Dever (R., Madeira) and Theresa Gavarone (R., Bowling Green).

The argument for the bill has been that such records can dog victims as they try to put their lives back together, showing up on criminal background checks for jobs and housing.

As originally introduced, the bill provided for expungement, but prosecutors were uncomfortable with the idea of destruction of records. As amended, the sealing of records would mean they’d still exist but would be shielded from public view.

“My sense is we’re going to be OK with elimination of the age difference in current law,” said Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “Our issue with [House Bill] 461 is going to be similar to our position with [House Bill] 56 in that we’re talking about potentially dismissing some very serious charges. Where do you draw the line?”

In recent years, Ohio has created specific human trafficking crimes, increased criminal penalties for both those who sell and buy the services of sex trade victims, and expanded services for victims as an alternative to prosecution.

Ohio has been at the forefront of research and law enforcement since a federal sting in 2005 in Harrisburg, Pa., put Toledo in the same company as Miami and Las Vegas as major recruiting hubs for sex trafficking.

Of 177 women and girls caught up in that sting, 77 — including a 10-year-old girl — were from the Toledo area.

Contact Jim Provance at jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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