COLUMBUS - Theresa Flores is the face of the modern age of slavery.
The white, blond features of a typical middle-class mom, now a Columbus social worker, seemed out of place among the close-up, darker images from other countries surrounding her as part of a traveling exhibit called "Invisible Slavery Today."
The exhibit of black-and-white photos in the Statehouse basement is designed to be a reminder that slavery is not just a part of America's past, but still claims some 12 million sex slaves worldwide, including as many as 300,000 U.S. children.
"I was living a nightmare," said Ms. Flores, now 42. "I was afraid for my life. I was afraid to tell anyone, even my parents. If we don't stop this now, when will it stop? When it happens to someone you know? ... I refuse to be invisible any longer."
She has written a book describing how she was raped as a suburban Detroit high school student at 15, then repeatedly beaten, drugged, and blackmailed by a local crime gang into serving hundreds of men sexually during the next two years. The gang sold her to others or gave her away as a reward to fellow members. Her family was threatened and her dog was killed to keep her in line.
Throughout it all, she said, her wealthy, largely absentee parents had no idea others were summoning her in the middle of the night. The cycle ended only when her father's job took the family to another state.
The exhibit is aimed at more than just the general public. Its backers hope a few lawmakers will see some of those faces. Bills pending in the House and Senate that would create separate felony crimes for "trafficking in persons" have stalled.
"Ohio is a transient state close to the border," said Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo). "Ohio plays a key role in this devastating activity. Even my hometown of Toledo had underage girls recruited into prostitution. We've got to stop it."
The bills have stalled largely because of opposition from prosecutors who argue that lawmakers' good intentions could make prosecutions more difficult. Instead of creating another charge for conduct that is already illegal and create confusion for the courts, lawmakers should instead focus on empowering victims to escape and cooperate with prosecutors, said John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
"We have plenty of laws on the books," he said. "The problem is these crimes are very difficult to prosecute. It's very difficult to get victims who are willing to cooperate, who are capable of cooperating, who can get away from the people who are holding them, either physically or due to threats or holding up passports. All this malarkey is about a new crime. The problem is we don't have any real evidence."
The bills would take different approaches, but both would create new first-degree felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
A bill proposed by Rep. Kathleen Chandler (D., Kent) would create a single felony of human trafficking. A bill introduced by Sen. David Goodman (R., Bexley) tries to mirror federal law by creating a menu of charges: human trafficking for forced labor and prostitution, sexual servitude of a minor, and involuntary servitude of a minor.
The severity of the latter charge, ranging from a fifth-degree felony to a first-degree felony, would depend on the role the offender played. A fifth-degree felony has a sentence of six months to a year in prison.
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