Past studies have shown Ohio ranks fourth in the nation in the number of reported human trafficking cases, but there are more instances that aren't showing up in research.
Two advocates for victims detailed the problem in central Ohio at Wednesday's Columbus Metropolitan Club forum. Mike Foley reports.
Esther Flores calls human trafficking a mega, multi-faceted problem that's happening not just in some other part of the country, but right here in Columbus. And it's something that's also chronically under reported.
"Unfortunately sometimes officials ignore the front-liners," Flores said. "In 2018, the National Human Trafficking hotline reported only 219 cases in the state of Ohio. Here on the Hilltop on the west side, 1DivineLine2Health - the non-profit I'm a founder of - we saw 1,250 females. That's how many we served at the drop-in center. There were 12 transgender and 50 children."
Flores says the exploitation and coercion takes many forms.
"Forced prostitution, labor, begging, criminality, domestic servitude, marriage, and organ-harvesting by being drugged into the act," Flores said. "It's important to understand that the women, the transgender, and the children that we work with are not objects. They are human beings. They are someone's child, daughter, parent, aunt, or relative. Unfortunately, there are people out there who think otherwise. But I'm here to speak for the voiceless. They're traumatized. They come from different states. They were trafficked here. What's so sad also is we have girls who are runners from the foster care system. We have also unborn children. Do you know that I am working with five women who have no prenatal care and are being trafficked?"
Flores says victims need compassion and accessibility to basic necessities. Victims also have a fear of institutions, even people in uniform which compounds the problem when it comes to law enforcement. Flores says it's also harder to prosecute human traffickers because they have to be caught in the act, and the victims must come forward. Flores says administration changes within the Columbus Division of Police have enhanced interactions with her 1DivineLine2Health group. She's hoping to create a full-time drop-in center for victims by renovating some property that was donated to her organization. There are recovery success stories. CleanTurn works with people coming out of human trafficking to find jobs. CleanTurn's Melissa Rienhard recalls the story of one woman whose drinking turned to pills, and she eventually ended up being trafficked on the streets of Columbus. But after being arrested, the woman entered the Franklin County program CATCH, which stands for Changing Actions to Change Habits.
"She went through the entire two-year program," Rienhard said. "She has been working with us for about a year and a half. She is just a joy. She brings positivity everywhere she goes. She's a team lead with us now. It's such a journey. You hear about what's going on on the streets, and it's very messy and complex. But there is hope. I think when you hear stories like that, you see the humanity."
Officials say CATCH Court has served more than 500 women since its creation in 2009. The program has received national recognition, and it's being replicated in other Ohio communities and across the country.