COLUMBUS — In what may be the first attempt to quantify Ohio's role as a major customer and recruiter in modern-day slavery, a state task force has estimated that more than 1,800 people may be trafficked in the state at any given time.
Celia Williamson, the University of Toledo professor who chaired the task force's research committee, admitted that attaching numbers to the problem is an inexact science.
But she said the estimates presented yesterday likely are on the conservative side.
“We don't have two years [for more study],” she said, noting that she believes the study may be the first of its kind in any state. “There are victims now in modern-day slavery.”
The research subcommittee of the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission noted that metropolitan Toledo ranks fourth in the nation behind Miami, Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas when it comes to raw numbers of arrests, investigations, and rescues of children involved in sex trafficking.
Considering Toledo's and Lucas County's smaller population compared to the other cities, the report said Toledo must be considered the per capita leader of the nation for such activities.
Toledo received unwelcome national attention when a 2005 federal investigation into a child prostitution ring in Harrisburg, Pa., revealed that nine area girls had been sold as slaves and that at least 12 of 31 people charged had ties to the city.
The new study used as one of its sources a 2006 series by The Blade, “Lost Youth: Teenage Sex Trade,” which brought to light the little-known fact of teenage prostitution and Toledo's emergence as a major recruitment hub at the hands of pimps.
“Because of Ohio's position in the country, it is not likely that Ohio is the original destination for many traffickers,” the report reads. “It is more likely that Ohio is one of the states where victims are sold while they are being moved around.
“Once the market demand is established, it is then likely that Ohio becomes the direct destination route from a country of origin into Ohio,” it adds. “Therefore, the existence of human trafficking in neighboring states becomes a pull factor for those victims to also be sold in various venues in Ohio.”
Ohio's proximity to the Canadian border, its access to major transportation arteries, and the prevalence of agricultural camps, strip clubs, and massage parlors make it a haven for the trafficking of human beings for sex and labor.
The report said the state remains ill-prepared to recognize the signs of human trafficking.
The commission estimated that 2,879 youths born in Ohio are at risk for sex trafficking and that 1,078 more have been involved in modern-day slavery over the course of a year.
Extrapolating from a number of national studies, it also estimated that 3,437 foreign-born people in Ohio may be at risk for trafficking for labor or the commercial sex trade, 783 of whom are actually being trafficked at any one time, the commission believes.
Jessica Klempner of Toledo is one of those statistics.
It's been five years since she left her Toledo home at age 17 for Florida, where she was put to work as a prostitute.
She performed sexual acts for cash, which she turned over to Toledoan Wayne Banks, Jr., who is serving 40 years in a Pennsylvania prison for the sexual trafficking of minors and other offenses.
She became a key witness in a federal investigation against Banks and at least 30 others accused of forcing dozens of teens and young women into the sex trade and exchanging them nationwide.
After the trial, she didn't stop hooking. Ms. Klempner was convicted of solicitation in Toledo Municipal Court in 2008, and admits that she used the money she earned performing sexual favors to get high on crack.
Now 21, she said she has given up drugs and soliciting. Since her son was born last month, she has enrolled in a GED program and is looking for a job.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I was done,” Ms. Klempner told The Blade yesterday. “He changed my life.”
Jessica said she wasn't surprised to learn that a state task force named Toledo among the top four cities nationwide for sexual trafficking.
“I see them around here,” she said of her South Toledo neighborhood. “Most of them are crack heads trying to get money to get high. They're all in one house. They go out and [prostitute] and come back. I'm trying to find a way to put that to a stop.”
What hasn't changed for Ms.Klempner is her attitude about her time as an underage sex worker in Florida. As she told The Blade five years ago, she refuses to call herself a victim.
“Yeah, it was my choice. Yep,” she said. “I regret I had given my money to a man. I could have had all that money. But it's not more important than my baby.”
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said determining the scope of the trafficking problem the state faces was the first step of the task force he led.
Created at the urging of Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), the task force was inserted into a law that, for the first time, recognized human trafficking — albeit not as a specific crime.
“A lot of trafficking right now is not being identified as such,” Mr. Cordray said. “It's instead being identified or prosecuted, or not, as individual, discrete offenses of prostitution, kidnapping, or some sort of altercation. A lot of trafficking, we believe, is a broader pattern that is not being necessarily identified as such by law enforcement who are not yet trained and aware.”
As discussions continue, the subcommittee made several recommendations to improve the inexact data surrounding trafficking.
“The response to trafficking is weak right now in Ohio,” Ms. Williamson said. “Using the criminal justice system for kids who are victims of a crime and who then spend time in juvenile detention is not the correct approach. It should be the child welfare system who cares for these children who are vulnerable and victimized.”
She said one reason that the Toledo area appears to be a leader in trafficking of women and youths for the sex trade is because it is more likely to recognize and respond to the signs of trafficking. The area is home to the Northwest Ohio Innocence Lost Task Force.
Ms. Fedor said many of the adults now involved in prostitution were trafficked themselves as juveniles.
She said she will try again to pass a law making human-trafficking a stand-alone crime in Ohio, a second-degree felony.
She said 42 states and the federal government have such laws.
“We now have a better idea about the atrocities being committed against children in our state, and it's worse than we thought,” she said. “This report will help pave the way for badly needed legislation that will bring Ohio in line with the 43 other states that already have human trafficking laws on the book.”
Staff writer Bridget Tharp contributed to this report.
Contact Jim Provance at:firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.