COLUMBUS — Elizabeth Ranade-Janis doesn’t feel the need to watch every DVD that crosses her desk on the scourge of humans sold for sex and labor.
“It becomes really overwhelming …,” she said. “That stuff is really important for awareness-raising, but I’m there. … Even when I was working in my old job, everyone’s like, ‘What do you mean you haven’t seen Hotel Rwanda? I don’t need to. I’ve seen the grave sites.”
Ms. Ranade-Janis, 32, is Ohio’s first coordinator against human trafficking, focusing on putting state agencies and a growing number of local organizations on the same page as they address the reality that the Buckeye State has become a hub for modern-day slavery.
The state has multiple commissions on the issue. Toledo and some other major cities have task forces. And all are still trying to get a handle on how big a problem it is.
“Probably the most heart-breaking thing about doing this kind of work — child protection work, relief, and development work — abroad is that very often, like Haiti, there’s no political will,” Ms. Ranade-Janis said. “There’s a lot of lip service … Even if you have well-meaning politicians, they don’t have rule of law. If you don’t have a functioning judiciary, how in the world are you going to think about prosecuting trafficking cases?”
But in Ohio, “there is political will, and capacity, and rule of law to prosecute traffickers,” she said. “I realize that’s a pretty dramatic paradigm shift, but to me that’s hugely encouraging. It isn’t perfect, but we’re working from something, and there’s a lot of will to get something done.”
Ms. Ranade-Janis, who is married with a 2-year-old son, is a product of Columbus. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Ohio State University. She spent 10 years in Washington, most recently as manager of humanitarian and emergency affairs at World Vision, helping to coordinate the response to the Haiti earthquake.
When Gov. John Kasich determined that Ohio needed one person to help make sense of multiple jurisdictional responses to human trafficking, coordinate their efforts, and take advantage of what’s working elsewhere and the federal money available, she decided it was time to come home.
“Having Liz on our team, who focuses 100 percent of her day on ending human trafficking and helping those impacted, has already produced results. But we have so much more to do, and Liz will be the first to tell you that,” Mr. Kasich said. “When you talk to her it’s clear that she is not only an expert in this area, she is also passionate about fixing this problem, helping those recovering from a life of trafficking who have deep scars, and saving others from this tragic existence.”
Alden Pinkham, hot-line coordinator for the Washington-based, anti-trafficking Polaris Project, worked with Ms. Ranade-Janis in her prior role as the organization’s mid-Atlantic regional specialist. She can think of only one other state position in the country, in Maryland, that has a position rivaling Ohio’s.
“I think we’ll see more in the years to come,” she said. “States are beginning to develop more coordinated efforts on human trafficking. There’s been a lot of attention from the federal government and nongovernmental social services, but in the last couple of years we’ve seen more direct engagement by the states themselves.”
Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), the leader in Ohio’s legislative response to human trafficking, has successfully pushed legislation designed to help victims of trafficking while toughening Ohio’s tools in prosecuting such crimes.
“[Ms. Ranade-Janis] does a great job collaborating with human-trafficking entities — law enforcement, nonprofits, and state agencies,” she said. “There’s such a growing effort of new people developing programs locally that we didn’t want to have to keep reinventing the wheel.”
Toledo has gotten much of the attention because of high-profile stings that pushed up its statistics.
“Toledo is always mentioned as the fourth-largest recruiting site in the U.S., and that’s because northwest Ohio has the blessing of having the FBI and Innocence Lost task force there, which is hugely helpful because you have people looking for kids …,” Ms. Ranade-Janis said.
“I am quite certain as we look at other cities and rural areas throughout the state…, we will start to see somewhat comparable numbers because I don’t think there’s anything about Toledo that makes people more prone to exploiting others,” she said.
Celia Williamson, professor of social work at the University of Toledo, buries herself in statistical research surrounding human trafficking in Ohio, and said she is grateful that when she comes up for air Ms. Ranade-Janis is there, holding everything together.
“A lot of states are jealous of Ohio because we have that vertical and horizontal communication,” she said. “People are jealous of that because they can’t get their states to listen. They don’t know what’s happening in other counties.”
Theresa Flores, a walking reminder that trafficking victims are often not the stereotypical runaway, has written and spoken about her experience of being blackmailed into sex trafficking while still living in her unsuspecting parents’ home in Detroit’s middle-class suburbs.
She said Ohio already has plenty of “do-gooders” and “bleeding heart social workers” working to do the right thing. Ohio needed someone like Ms. Ranade-Janis to bring cohesion to fragmentation, she said.
“She helps us put all the pieces of the puzzle together,” Ms. Flores said.
Ms. Ranade-Janis works out of the Department of Public Safety and is paid $69,500 a year, 35 percent of the salary coming from state funds and 65 percent from federal funds.
Ms. Flores thinks the funding should keep coming.
“This issue is not going away,” Ms. Flores said. “It does not have a shelf life of two years when the issue is cured and all gone.”
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.