Facing up to trafficking

Celia Williamson, director of the University of Toledo Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute.
Celia Williamson, director of the University of Toledo Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute.

In 2017, law enforcement in Ohio investigated more cases of human trafficking than in any year since the state has been keeping track. The 202 such cases statewide tracked by the state attorney general’s Human Trafficking Commission represent a 50 percent increase just from 2016.

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The report showed that some who were trafficked were used for forced labor, but most were involved in the sex trade.

But there is a bit of a silver lining. The problem, once hidden in plain sight, is now being recognized and talked about.

The University of Toledo’s Celia Williamson, who heads the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute, is a prophetic national voice on this issue. She has helped change the way most people understand the issue and the way many law enforcement agencies tackle it.

Ohio’s senior U.S. senator, Rob Portman, is a prophetic voice too. He has been the leader in Congress in efforts to shut down the site responsible for most sex trafficking, Backpage.com. After a two-year investigation, he proposed a bill that would close the loophole in the Communications Decency Act that lets such sites protect traffickers who use them for advertising.

And Ohio has modernized many of the laws that apply to trafficking cases, creating specific crimes to target the offense, increasing penalties for traffickers and their customers, attempting to treat those forced into prostitution more like victims rather than criminals.

Importantly, Attorney General Mike DeWine noted that Ohio’s opioid crisis aggravates the problem of human trafficking in the state. Many traffickers get their targets addicted to heroin or other drugs and then use that addiction to control the victims.

Controlling a vulnerable person’s income or housing is powerful, Mr. DeWine noted, but controlling access to powerfully addictive drugs like heroin makes a trafficker even more powerful over his victims.

Ohio has led the evolution in policy analysis and law enforcement regarding this formerly too often invisible form of human slavery. There is much more to do. But Ohio is now facing the problem.

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