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Kasich targets human trafficking

Task force has 90 days to offer plan to attack child sex trade, aid victims

Ohio-Governor-John-Kasich

Ohio Governor John Kasich

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COLUMBUS -- "I don't know that I can think of a greater evil," Gov. John Kasich said Thursday as he signed an executive order creating a 90-day task force to develop a coordinated game plan for attacking modern-day slavery in Ohio.

"We knew that this existed in the world … and yet right under our nose is a lack of recognition of this problem -- until Teresa [Fedor] wouldn't be quiet," the governor said. He fought back tears as he spoke of children coerced into the sex trade at roughly the same age of his 12-year-old twin daughters.

The interagency task force, on which Ms. Fedor (D., Toledo) will sit, will focus on the investigation into and prosecution of those who force others, particularly minors, into prostitution, domestic service, or labor. It also will work on identifying and rescuing victims and getting addiction, medical, housing, counseling, and other services to them.

"Can you tell me how a 13-year-old kid can be snatched, blackmailed, drugged, raped in our state, in our country?" Mr. Kasich asked. "When you rescue one of these young people, where do they go? What happens to their minds, and what do we do to heal them in some way?"

Attorney General Mike DeWine, who now oversees an interagency commission examining trafficking, said the governor's panel has at least one thing going for it that his commission does not.

"When the governor forces an issue, it means a lot," he said. He also pointed to the 90-day time limit.

Legislative efforts under way will not halt in the meantime, Mr. Kasich said. Ms. Fedor has a bill pending in the House that would prohibit police from charging a minor with prostitution if picked up by police, a provision specifically plugged Thursday by the governor. It also would require the state to develop services for those victims.

"If they don't get services right away, they're going to be back on the streets," Ms. Fedor said. "They're going to be killed."

Despite some of the overlap with Mr. DeWine's commission, she called the governor's task force "a very logical next step.''

"Many of the most vulnerable populations in Ohio come from children's services," Ms. Fedor said. "We're ninth in the nation in child abuse. We can clean that up. We're 50th in the nation in funding children's services in the state of Ohio."

Then, in an awkward moment, she turned with a smile to Mr. Kasich and added, "I'm going to influence that."

Mr. Kasich quickly responded, "Well, we're all for it. What have you been doing since I got here?"

Theresa Flores, who has written a book about her own experience as a trafficking victim as a suburban Michigan teenager, is trying to get a license from the state for a Columbus-area group home for victims. It would be Ohio's first such licensed home.

"Nobody called a [hot line] number for me," she said. "Nobody knew the signs… We can rescue girls all day long, but they come to us with nothing."

Mr. Kasich and Ms. Flores recently taped a public service announcement to plug the toll-free hot line, 1-888-373-7888, that victims and those who suspect trafficking can call.

"When you see human trafficking, you may not even know what you're seeing…" Mr. DeWine said. "That's the problem… A lot of this is education."

The human-trafficking spotlight fell on Toledo in 2005 when The Blade ran a series of stories about the practice. That same year, a federal sting in Harrisburg, Pa., broke up a sex-trafficking operation that involved 177 females. Seventy-seven of the victims were from the Toledo area, including a 10-year-old girl.

A law that took effect last year created Ohio's first stand-alone felony crime of "trafficking in persons," carrying a prison term of eight years. The law defines human trafficking as acting or attempting to "recruit, lure, entice, harbor, transport, provide, obtain, or maintain" another person, knowing that person will be forced into labor, prostitution, or pornography.

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

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