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TARTA to become ‘safe haven’

Transit system to join coalition against human trafficking

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Officials of Toledo’s public transit system announced Monday that it will become a “safe haven” for human trafficking victims and will immediately launch a public awareness campaign about the issue that will include training drivers to identify it and how to respond.

New signage on buses and shelters will tell people how to notify drivers if they need help and what other community resources are available, said TARTA General Manager James Gee, who made the announcement during a news conference held at One Government Center in downtown To-ledo. The purpose of the conference was to announce that TARTA was joining the local Lucas County Hu-man Trafficking Coalition.

If a victim flags down a bus, the driver will stop and offer them temporary refuge until law enforcement authorities can be contacted, Mr. Gee said.

“Tragically, human trafficking affects a lot of people in our community,” said Mr. Gee, who partially quoted a speech President Obama recently gave about the issue: “Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time.”

Added Mr. Gee: “It’s barbaric and has no place in a civilized world.”

Human trafficking has long been a problem in Toledo, Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp said. He noted that in 1972 he was part of a vice squad assigned to patrolling bus stations where predators would watch for children and women and offer them food, clothing, and shelter, “then came the payback; putting them on the streets.”

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center in 2013 ranked Toledo as fifth in the nation for investigations, arrests, and rescues of children forced into prostitution.

Toledo is considered an origin city, with girls recruited and shipped to other states, officials at the news conference said.

Celia Williamson, a University of Toledo professor of social work and founder of Second Chance, an organization that works with victims of human trafficking, said “over 1,000 young people in Ohio are sold by force or manipulation every year.”

The problem crosses all borders, including race and gender and social and economic classes, Ms. Williamson said. But one of the biggest victims of human trafficking are immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

“There are 17,500 slaves in the United States per year,” Ms. Williamson said. “It’s a very complex problem.”

Many immigrants are lured with promises of good-paying jobs, she explained. They obtain passports, but when they arrive they discover the jobs aren’t as promised; they’re forced into prostitution, dealing drugs, forced to work extra long hours for little or no pay, she said.

FBI Agent David Dustin, who oversees the agency’s Northwest Ohio Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force, said it’s important that more organizations and agencies join efforts to combat human trafficking.

“It’s important to build cases and we can’t be everywhere,” Mr. Dustin said. “We can’t do it alone. Since 2006 we’ve solved dozens of cases; we’re really having an impact.”

To call for help or report suspected human trafficking incidents call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or Toledo’s Second Chance at 419-244-6050.

Contact Federico Martinez at:

fmartinez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.

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