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Published: Thursday, 1/13/2011

Sex trafficking still booming, panel laments

COLUMBUS -- The panelists in the front of the room asked for a show of hands as they discussed the fight against modern-day slavery in Ohio. The result: too few men, too few businesses.

Last year was considered a groundbreaking year in the Buckeye State in its relatively new battle. In late March, a new law will take effect creating a stand-alone, second-degree felony of "trafficking in persons" that carries a potential prison sentence of eight years.

For the first time, Ohio law has a definition of what "trafficking in persons'' is and looks beyond the sex trade to include forced labor.

But for all that legislative success, Celia Williamson, a researcher at the University of Toledo, had sobering comments for the crowd at the Statehouse's second annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

"Business is booming, and our competitors are outpacing us," she said, noting the pimps that physically force or coerce girls and women are telling them, "I got you 24-7."

"What have we got? Come to my office two hours a week for counseling?" Ms. Williamson said. "That's what we're going to offer to our competition? They have nuclear capabilities, and we're circling the wagons. That's how sad we are."

Late last month, outgoing Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland signed the stand-alone felony bill into law. On Tuesday, state Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), one of the sponsors of that law, received a boost when she talked briefly about the issue with his successor.

New Republican Gov. John Kasich later cited it during a luncheon with lawmakers as one issue on which all should agree.

"Cripe," he said. "Let's agree on it. Let's do it. Let's fix it. Let's get it done."

New GOP Attorney General Mike DeWine vowed to continue the task force and efforts begun by his predecessor, Democrat Richard Cordray.

Mr. DeWine -- a former U.S. senator, lieutenant governor, and Greene County prosecutor -- said the learning curve in Ohio on human trafficking today is at the same level as victims' rights in general in the 1970s.

"This exists," he said. "People are being victimized. Human trafficking does occur in Ohio. … We are still on that learning curve."

The human trafficking microscope was turned on Ohio, and particularly Toledo, in 2005 when a federal sting in Harrisburg, Pa., broke up a sex-trafficking operation involving 177 girls and women. Seventy-seven of the victims were from the Toledo area, including a 10-year-old.

"Traffickers have walked away from the halls of justice," Ms. Fedor said. "They still do until the end of March. … The good thing is, we know locally that law enforcement knows who they are. I'm challenging all my local officials … to call up their chiefs of police and get a briefing on what's going on with trafficking in their communities."

The next step is the proposed Safe Harbor Act. The bill would require that those under the age of 18 who are picked up in prostitution stings be treated as victims, not criminals.

Those participating in Wedensday's programs bemoaned the lack of services directly targeting trafficking victims, particularly minors. There are just 50 beds in the nation specifically for minor victims. The first home for minors in Ohio may open later this year.

They questioned the lack of business representatives in the room to join the fight. And Toledo native Jewel Woods, now living in Columbus, warned that the state cannot get a handle on trafficking if it doesn't crack down on demand. That, the executive director of the Renaissance Male Project said, means getting to men and boys, the potential pimps and customers, who fuel the market.

"If we don't address the demand, we can't really help and support the victims," he said.

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

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