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State

Panel mulls next step on sex slavery

Effort under way to tally victims

COLUMBUS -- The first phase of creating a stand-alone crime of human trafficking now behind it, a state commission Monday discussed the next steps in Ohio's battle against the "scum" who perpetrate modern-day slavery.

In the months since it last met last year, Ohio has a new attorney general in Republican Mike DeWine, who vowed to continue the state's early progress begun under his predecessor, Richard Cordray, a Democrat.

"I'm not satisfied with the idea that we cannot get criminal prosecutions," Mr. DeWine told representatives of law enforcement, social service agencies, and the General Assembly making up his revamped Human Trafficking Commission.

"We have seen some criminal prosecutions in the last several years… so it certainly can be done,'' he said. "Our goal in the attorney general's office is to increase that, to raise the bar, and to go after the scum who are preying on very vulnerable people in the state of Ohio and outside the state of Ohio."

More than a year ago, the commission's predecessor raised eyebrows when it inferred from statistics from various sources that as 2,879 Ohio-born minors are at risk of being trafficked into the sex industry in a given year. Of those, the study estimated that 1,078 are actively recruited.

Celia Williamson, a University of Toledo researcher, lamented the lack of solid statistics in this area and said an effort is under way to bring the abstract into reality with a study that interviews trafficking victims.

Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati are involved in the study, and she hopes to add at least four more cities to the mix. The commission hopes to be able to use such a data to guide it in targeting resources and prevention efforts.

"Because we have experience in Toledo of working with domestic minors, we know that once they are trafficked, it's very difficult to provide some effective service," Ms. Williamson said. "What happens is the kid is then going from juvenile detention to runaway to law enforcement back to our program. It continues on until that kid builds enough trust."

State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), a commission member, has introduced the next step, the proposed Safe Harbor bill that would prevent a minor from being charged with prostitution if he or she was under duress or coercion at the time of the crime.

"This is the next piece that is absolutely critical for us to put into place, because it would be nearly impossible if you don't have the victims able to help prosecute the traffickers," she said. "That's the key. We can't incarcerate our children for this crime."

The bill also calls for the state to develop standards for physical and mental health services for victims and to establish procedures for uniting victims with their families.

Toledo Police Detective Pete Swartz, who is on the Northwest Ohio Violent Crimes Against Children task force and a member of Mr. DeWine's commission, said he agrees with the goal of Ms. Fedor's bill to redirect victims of human trafficking from the juvenile court system to treatment, housing, and other programs.

"We don't want to arrest them, but there are certain other things where there are other crimes being committed by some of these victims as well," he said. "That's going to have to be addressed. … It's a thin line. There's a point in time when a victim can become a victimizer."

Mr. DeWine's office said suspected trafficking can be reported to the state via 1-855-BCI-OHIO or 1-855-224-6446. He stressed, however, that cases are most likely to be handled at the local level.

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

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