COLUMBUS - With Toledo serving as proof that modern-day slavery exists in Ohio, a special task force yesterday set out to create a map for a new underground railroad to freedom.
The new Trafficking in Persons Study Commission consisting of law enforcement, social workers, state officials, legislators, academics, and survivors is expected to recommend changes to Ohio law to help identify and prosecute organized efforts to coerce children and vulnerable adults into the sex trade and forced labor.
"It took us three years to get here," said Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo). She first began seeking recognition in Ohio law of the crime of "human trafficking" after a Blade investigation highlighted Toledo's role in the recruitment of children for underage sex trade.
A federal investigation into a child prostitution ring in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2005 revealed that nine Toledo-area girls involved had been sold as slaves and at least 12 of the 31 people charged had ties to the city.
"The problem lies in the fact that it is not easy for people to detect, as advocates have struggled in the last three years to get the attention of my colleagues to say this is real," Ms. Fedor said. "It's a myth that middle-class cities like Toledo, Columbus, and even suburban areas do not have slavery in their midst."
The first meeting took place nearly seven months after Gov. Ted Strickland signed a law that recommended creation of a study panel without setting a deadline for a final report or appropriating money for its work. The commission is headed by Attorney
General Richard Cordray and is heavy on representation from the Toledo area.
"There is a crying need to understand this problem better," Mr. Cordray said. "There are organized networks, just as with drugs and other types of crimes, that are moving people around in this country with particular objectives in mind, often sexual, making it a bigger problem than how it's been defined in state law."
He said the process could take a year or more.
Kathleen Davis, of the Washington-based Polaris Project, told the commission that an estimated 2 million to 4 million people across the world become human-trafficking victims every year, 14,500 to 17,500 of them trafficked in or through Ohio.
Ohio and particularly Toledo are considered hubs for human trafficking because of their abundance of major highway arteries, a high volume of migrant and undocumented workers, and their proximity to casinos in neighboring states, all of which interplay into providing potential victims and customers.
"It's really about profit with these people," Ms. Davis said. "It's not just that they're evil-doers. It's about money."
Ohio's first law addressing human-trafficking stopped short of Ms. Fedor's goal of creating a new crime. Instead, lawmakers created a trafficking specification that prosecutors could attach to crimes associated with the sex trade to automatically increase penalties much as they do now with crimes that involve the use of a firearm.
The new law defines human-trafficking as the commission of at least two felonies as part of a broader scheme to coerce a victim into prostitution or pornography. The specification would not apply to crimes associated with forced labor, something some at the table pointed to yesterday as a weakness in the law.
Ele Sondra DeRomano, director of the Toledo nonprofit Wake Up Youth that works with troubled underage girls and women, is one of two former trafficking victims on the panel.
Ms. DeRomano said there should be more like her among the commission's 23 members.
"Who better to tell our story than us?" she asked. "You might have done research. You might have read 150 million books. You might have a PhD and alphabetical letters behind your name - and I'm not taking that away from anybody. I respect everybody - but in the beginning there has to be a stepping stone."
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With Toledo serving as proof that modern-day slavery exists in Ohio, a special task force Wednesday set out to create a map for a new underground railroad to freedom.