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Published: Thursday, 8/9/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

Ohio's sex trafficking victims often teens who got little help

BY JESSICA SHOR
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Celia Williamson, professor of social work at the University of Toledo. Celia Williamson, professor of social work at the University of Toledo.
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The state Attorney General's Office released a report on sex trafficking in Ohio on Wednesday, shedding light on a practice more often imagined in the red-light districts of Bangkok than the neighborhoods of the Buckeye State.

Two years after a report from the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Commission found Toledo has the nation's highest per-capita rate of human trafficking, the 2012 study paints an equally troubling picture of Ohio's trafficking victims -- often teens, and usually with abuse, rape, and academic trouble in their past.

"People sometimes think it only occurs in foreign countries," Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine explained. "They think it certainly couldn't happen in Toledo or Perrysburg or Dayton or Columbus, but it could."

Data in the study -- gathered over three years from interviews with 328 current and former victims of sex trafficking -- point to the need for greater awareness of trafficking and earlier interventions for those at risk, said Celia Williamson, the University of Toledo professor and human trafficking commission member who authored the study and presented it Wednesday to the commission.

Mr. DeWine said the commission will review the report over the next couple of weeks before deciding a course of action.

The report recommended the acronym "RESCUE CHILD" to remember indicators that often identify potential trafficking victims. In the acronym, for example, the "R" stands for running away from home, as 63 percent of teen trafficking victims had. The "S" is for sexual assault, reported by 40 percent of victims, and "L" is for loving a much older partner, as 50 percent did.

"I know a lot of social workers, when they read through 'Rescue Child,' will say, 'Hey, that's a lot of the kids on my case book,' " Ms. Williamson said in her remarks before the human trafficking commission.

She highlighted the high percentage of victims running away from home -- and what that figure says about intervention efforts -- as an especially alarming finding.

"In Ohio, it seems that kids run away and then social workers like me wait for them to run back, and then we do an intervention," she said. "That's not a good way. The kids are on the run and they're trafficked, and we're waiting for them to run back. That practice has to end."

The report confirmed that despite the prevalence of abuse in victims' pasts, few received help from social workers or child protective services.

Only 19 percent of trafficking victims reported interventions from child protective services at any point in their lives. That statistic fell to 8 percent in the year immediately before trafficking began, and just 3 percent after being trafficked. When an adult did intervene, the study stated, it was often a member of law enforcement, a probation officer, or a family friend.

Mr. DeWine described that finding as one of the report's most illuminating, and said it would be a priority for his office as it continues to review the statistics and recommendations in the study.

"It shouldn't surprise us," he stated. "Lots ran away from home and weren't in the mainstream of people receiving social support. They're just not there."

Ben Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Joband Family Services, said his agency has been working with the county-level child protection agencies it oversees to implement more effective policies for youths at risk of trafficking.

"There's going to be changes moving forward," Mr. Johnson said, when asked about the need for child services to play a larger role in trafficking prevention. "We'll be doing awareness campaigns for the general public and for people who get caught in situations and need help."

Job and Family Services' work has occurred under the purview of the governor's Human Trafficking Task Force, convened for the first time in March.

Both the task force and Wednesday's report come as the state ramps up its anti-trafficking efforts, which most recently included a bill -- signed into law by Gov. John Kasich in June in Toledo -- that increases penalties for traffickers and establishes a fund for victims.

Contact Jessica Shor at: jshor@theblade.com or 419-724-6516.



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