Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday came to Toledo to sign the Safe Harbor Law to increase penalties for adults who profit from underage prostitution and to give teenaged victims and survivors a chance to avoid a conviction and turn their lives around.
The signing of the human-trafficking bill took place at Toledo Area Ministries on Monroe Street near downtown in front of an audience of juvenile advocates, some of whom have fought for seven years to toughen the law to stamp out the sex trade in minors for which Toledo became known in 2005. That is the same year a series of stories in The Blade exposed the practice and detailed how Toledo was a hub for underage sex trafficking.
The governor was joined by the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), who provided flowers to brighten up the event, and Toledo-area state Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee that helped hammer out a compromise.
The new law that passed two weeks ago and was to go into effect immediately upon the governor's signing treats juveniles who are charged with prostitution as victims and allows them to have criminal charges expunged if they go through a diversion program for treatment, counseling, and other services.
It makes a human-trafficking charge a first-degree felony -- an increase from a second-degree felony -- with a mandatory prison term of at least 10 years and requires convicted human traffickers to register as sex offenders.
The law will allow victims to sue those who coerced and forced them through drugs, threats, and even feigned acts of kindness into selling themselves and allows police to confiscate traffickers' assets upon conviction to fund services for their victims.
Also, the act requires training for police officers in how to spot human trafficking and the creation of a poster that advertises the human trafficking hot line.
"We're throwing the book at the abusers, not just the traffickers, but those who profit from the traffickers, those in the chain of trafficking. We're not looking the other way," Mr. Kasich said.
Toledo gained attention in 2005 as a center for recruiting young girls into the sex trade. A federal sting in Harrisburg, Pa., broke up a sex-trafficking operation involving 177 females. Seventy-seven of the victims were from the Toledo area, including a 10-year-old girl.
The signing coincided with the release of a report from the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force to Governor Kasich containing 26 recommendations that the state of Ohio should act upon to better coordinate efforts to identify and rescue victims of human trafficking, create a coordinated law enforcement system to investigate these crimes, and provide services and treatment to trafficking victims.
The signing ceremony brought together Ms. Fedor and Mr. Kasich, a Republican, who are usually at opposite poles on political issues.
"It's shocking to me that we have built up so many scars that when I told her I'm going to help fight this scourge, she didn't believe me," Mr. Kasich said.
The governor said gaining passage of the anti-trafficking legislation was something he said was an obligation because "the Lord allowed me to have this job."
"When the Lord gives you power and authority to do something, do it right," he said. "That's what drives me each and every day, giving people a chance to have their God-given rights fulfilled."
Ms. Fedor , a former teacher, said the law will give children a chance to get their childhood back and adult survivors an opportunity to get justice.
"For seven years I felt I was hearing the cries every night of the victims. Now we're going to have fewer and fewer of our children crying at night," Ms. Fedor said. "To victims and survivors, this is your independence day."
She said the law should become a model for the nation.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine issued a statement endorsing the new Safe Harbor Law and the recommendations of the task force.
"Law enforcement can't solve the human-trafficking problem alone, which is why teaching the public about the problem is so crucial," Mr. DeWine said.
Toledo Area Ministries is an ecumenical organization that runs the Second Chance program to help juvenile offenders, survivors of trafficking, and minors who are potential victims of trafficking. Three teenaged girls who are in Second Chance attended the program and were invited by Mr. Kasich to join him at the front of the room.
Contact Tom Troy at email@example.com or 419-724-6058.