Advocates and prosecutors asked for tougher laws and more resources for combating a rise in sex trafficking during a meeting with attorney general candidate Steve Dettelbach.
Mr. Dettelbach shared a plan to bolster Ohio’s sex trafficking laws in Toledo Thursday, linking the trafficking of minors, failing charter schools, and the opioid epidemic as examples of the state failing to protect children.
Democratic nominee for Attorney General Steve Dettelbach, center, discusses human trafficking during a roundtable his campaign called with local officials Thursday at Michael's Bar and Grill in Toledo. Also pictured are attorney Catherine Hoolahan, left, and state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), right.
“It’s easy to view these things as separate, but they’re not,” said Mr. Dettelbach, a Democrat. “The current group that’s [in Columbus] dealing with these issues has failed our children.”
Ohio ranked fourth in the nation for human trafficking cases in 2017, according to the attorney general’s office. Advocates say Ohio’s weak trafficking laws are partially to blame. They’ve been pushing lawmakers to reform state laws so that 16 and 17-year-olds can’t be charged with prostitution if they’re victims of sex trafficking.
Lucas County Juvenile Court attorneys said they need more tools to prosecute the rising number of sex trafficking cases involving minors. In 2017, the attorney general’s office identified 208 potential victims of sex trafficking, including 38 children who were 17 and younger.
Lori Olender, head prosecutor for juvenile court in Lucas County, said there has been an uptick in cases of parents prostituting their children and better laws would help.
“It would be great to have more tools for the prosecutors office to be able to bring these cases forward,” she said.
As the opioid epidemic rages on, State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), who sponsored legislation in the House to reform trafficking laws for 16 and 17-year-olds, said drug addiction is fueling the rise in sex trafficking.
“We have cases all over Ohio ... where parents are now selling their children to get drugs,” she said. “That’s a new phenomenon.”
Mr. Dettelbach’s plan calls for for:
- Tougher penalties for soliciting sex with minors and child pornography.
- Expanding access to emergency shelter and other services for sex trafficking victims.
- Making selling sex with minors over the Internet a second-degree felony for a first offense.
- Advocate for a pending state House bill that would eliminate the stronger burden of proof for convicting adults who traffic 16 and 17-year-olds. The current law requires proof of “force, fraud, or coercion.”
- Prohibit a consent defense for any commercial sexual offense when the victim is a minor.
- More anti-trafficking task forces like the one officials started in Toledo.
Mr. Dettelbach’s opponent, Republican state auditor Dave Yost, said he also supports strengthening sex trafficking laws.
“My opponent and I don’t really disagree on this. It’s kind of a consensus set of points that most of law enforcement agrees needs to happen and I would do a lot of the same things,” Mr. Yost said.
The lawmakers and attorneys Mr. Dettelbach met with were also concerned about keeping children in school to make them less vulnerable to sex trafficking. They raised the issue of the failed online charter school, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which had a graduation rate of 39 percent before it closed.
Attorney General Mike DeWine announced last week the state is going after the school’s founder and principal players to recoup $62 million owed to taxpayers after the Department of Education determined ECOT couldn’t back up its enrollment numbers.
Mr. Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor and U.S. attorney for northern Ohio, said as attorney general he would seek criminal prosecutions in ECOT.
“The big headline is trying to get back some of the money,” he said. “Of course we should get back some of the money. But we should be criminally investigating the people who did this to see if somebody needs to go to jail. I hope people don’t buy into the idea that the best we can do is try to get the money back.”
Mr. Yost, who has faced criticism for not flagging issues with the school sooner as auditor, said he would expand on action Mr. DeWine has taken against ECOT. In May, he asked federal and state prosecutors to look into criminal charges related to intentionally inflated enrollment figures for what was once Ohio’s largest online charter school.
Mr. DeWine, who’s running for governor, has also been criticized for not acting sooner.
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