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Toledo experts on sex trafficking met with U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) on Friday to discuss ways to increase protection for minors who are considered runaways from being recruited into the sex trade business.
The round-table discussion at the University Toledo involved several members of the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition including state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D.,Toledo), who has successfully pushed several laws through the Ohio legislature on the issue, and UT Professor Celia Williamson, who is known as one of the top researchers on the issue in the country.
“One of the issues is to change the way law enforcement approaches it from a federal level. From these young people, who are brought into this exploitation, from being treated as criminals as they often are now and put in the criminal justice system to being treated as victims — some of these kids are as young as 12, 13 years old,” said Senator Portman.
Another issue that emerged as a theme during the round-table discussion is the lack of emphasis placed on finding and helping teenagers who run away from home.
“First we had to focus on awareness of the issue itself. Then we had to put some programs and services in place. Now is the time to really start looking at the risk factors for how and why kids get involved in sex-trafficking, and running away is one of the highest risk factors,” Ms. Williamson said.
The professor recently surveyed teenagers who were involved in human-trafficking in five Ohio cities to find out what was going on in their life before they became victims of the sex trade. The results of her 2012 study show that 63 percent of the teens said they had run away from home for the first time. In Ohio, she said, a runaway is likely to be recruited into sex-trafficking within the first two years of leaving home.
Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn agreed and said there needs to be a shift in the thinking of law enforcement about juveniles who run away and that the cases should get as much attention as “missing” children cases.
Senator Portman said Ohio has been out front in providing leadership for the country on this issue. The bipartisan Safe Harbor Law, which was introduced by Representative Fedor and signed by Gov. John Kasich in 2012, increased penalties for adults who profit from underage prostitution and gave teenaged victims and survivors a chance to avoid a conviction and turn their lives around. The law was widely praised and moved the state much closer to changing the way child prostitutes are treated in the criminal justice system.
Senator Portman, who is the co-chair of the Senate caucus to end human trafficking, said he has been working on the federal level to educate lawmakers about steps being taken in Ohio, and he has introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at providing better protection for missing and exploited children.
He is focusing much of his efforts on his Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act that would increase the amount of information collected on the issue of sex-trafficking to understand the problem better. He said Ms. Williamson is doing a great job but she could use help.
“We got it through the finance committee in December. It was bipartisan, and we are trying to get floor time right now. I think if we can get a vote on the Senate floor, it will be a huge bipartisan vote, and I think we are gonna get it through the House and get the President to sign it into law,” he said.
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