Alone And Enslaved: The Human Trafficking Epidemic In The United States

Ohio has some of the highest trafficking rates in the country

Photo by Human Trafficking Task Force.

By Blair Donovan

Miami Journalism Student

In 1978, Stepanka Korytova packed her belongings carefully in a suitcase and hopped on a train to emigrate from her homeland, Czechoslovakia, to Great Britain.

She knew she wasn’t going back. She was 21 and alone.

Four years later, she migrated to the United States and eventually got her green card.

During what she described as an emotionally difficult journey as an immigrant, Korytova was sexually harassed, and even ended up in several situations where she could have become a human trafficking victim. One particular instance happened at a chiropractor’s office in Bloomington, Indiana.

Human trafficking actually happens in the United States. In 2015, there were a total of 21,947 phone calls reporting human trafficking cases in the United States to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Ohio was the fourth highest state in terms of number of calls.

Source: National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Human trafficking has two parts: sex trafficking and labor trafficking, which often gets overlooked.

According to Polaris, an organization dedicated to ending human trafficking, sex trafficking involves “violence, threats, lies, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will.”

Human trafficking laws vary at the state and national levels. Under federal law, any minor under the age of 18 lured into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking. But under Ohio law, anyone under 16 lured into commercial sex is a sex trafficking victim.

“Anything under 16 in Ohio, and then for the feds anything under 18, it does not matter,” Kristen Rost of the Ohio Children’s Trust Fund says. “You cannot have sex with a child. A child cannot cognitively agree.”

Rost is a member of the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force and the Ohio Human Trafficking Commission. She came to Miami University Oct. 20 to talk about sex trafficking. She deals with human trafficking cases on the policy side.

Labor trafficking, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services.”

For an act to be considered trafficking, the trafficker has to exert force, fraud, or coercion while forcing a victim to perform sexual or labor acts against his or her will.

Anyone can fall victim to human trafficking. No one person is “safer” than another. But traffickers do prey on certain types of people.

Source: National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Traffickers look for vulnerable people, especially individuals with low self esteem or who don’t speak much English. They also target people with little social support who might have families that won’t notice if they’re gone for long periods of time. While Rost thinks more adults are victims of trafficking — specifically sex trafficking — they most likely started out in this underground business as children.

“Data shows that typically the age of a trafficking victim for the first time is 12 or 13,” says Rost. “When they’re being recruited into the life, they’re children. Typically, they’re children. They’re easier to manipulate, they’re easier to move.”

Traffickers also target immigrants, which inspired Korytova to get her PhD in immigration and research human trafficking.

“Some of the people who are trafficked are immigrants because they don’t have many rights,” says Korytova. “They can be very easily exploited, even if they have all the legal papers. For most immigrants, they have to work very hard no matter what in order to survive in their new country of destination.”

Since Sep. 30, there have already been 292 reported cases of trafficking and 1,014 calls in Ohio this year, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.


Sex Trafficking in Ohio

Toledo got a wake up call in 2005 during the FBI’s Operation Precious Cargo. Under this investigation, the FBI conducted a trafficking sting at a truck stop in Harrisburg, PA. They found a total of 151 sex trafficking victims, 78 of whom were from Toledo. The youngest victim was 12.

This case increased awareness of trafficking in Ohio. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not still a major issue. Rost thinks Ohio has developed a good response to handling trafficking, but says Ohio definitely sees more trafficking than other states. Highways are a big part of this.

Map showing interstate highways running across Ohio. Produced using Google Maps.

“I-75 goes across all the way up and down the state, and really across the eastern part of the United States,” says Rost. “It’s a thoroughfare for all goods that are trafficked. That’s a busy highway for guns, drugs, as well as people. Where we’re located and the highways we have are major routes for the trafficking of all goods.”

Rost says the drug problem in Ohio also feeds into trafficking. Some parents go so far as to sell their children to traffickers for drug money.

Toledo isn’t the only major city in Ohio with cases of human trafficking. According to Rost, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus are just as bad. Data shows Toledo had higher trafficking numbers in years past, but that’s because they started tracking it before other cities, according to Rost. Trafficking still happens in rural places, too, but officials monitor the issue better in larger cities.

“We’re still training all of our law enforcement to identify trafficking and signs and symptoms to look for,” says Rost. “We just have more people in our bigger cities. Right now, the data is showing by numbers that it’s our big cities, and they’re all pretty equal — Toledo, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. But, not to say that it isn’t an issue everywhere.”

Source: National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Of the 292 reported cases in Ohio this year, 217 have been sex trafficking cases. While most of these happened in hotels and motels, strip clubs play a major role in sex trafficking.

“Going to a strip club is not an innocent, fun experience,” says Rost. “The majority of people at strip clubs are being trafficked. Your money is helping fuel this economy. Maybe it’s something you do in college, but you’re actually contributing to this underground economy of trafficking.”


Labor Trafficking in Ohio

On Dec. 17, 2014, federal officials uncovered a labor trafficking ring on Trillum Farms in Marion, Ohio. They found more than 40 victims, the majority of which were Guatemalan teenagers. Their traffickers forced them to work 12-hour days, threatening to harm them or their families if they left.

“These kids were trafficked directly from Guatemala to this egg farm in Marion,” says Andrea Lewis, public policy officer for the Ohio Latino Affairs Commission. “The parents were essentially told that they would come here and get school and education and they would be safe. The parents didn’t even know that they were signing over deeds to their own houses to fund their kids coming up here and they were being put directly in the hands of their traffickers.”

Lewis also came to Miami University Oct. 20 to talk about labor trafficking, specifically the trafficking of unaccompanied alien children (UACs). According to Lewis, UACs are minors with little or no legal status who migrate to the United States, typically to flee gang violence, and live without a parent or guardian.

Lewis says the amount of labor trafficking of UACs in Ohio has increased in the past two years.

“Since 2014, there’s been a large influx of unaccompanied children journeying to the U.S. to seek asylum,” says Lewis. “With more kids coming, that leaves room for this vulnerable population to be exploited. I think we’ve seen numbers probably increase because of the influx of children coming to the United States.”

Once UACs get across the United States border, they turn themselves in and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, under the Department of Health and Human Services, places them in holding facilities while case workers find them a sponsor to live with. Sponsors in Ohio are usually family members.

However, Lewis says the Office of Refugee Resettlement has so many cases to deal with that it’s hard to make sure the UACs are being placed with safe sponsors.

Senator Rob Portman conducted an investigation of the Guatemalan teenagers forced to work on the egg farm in Marion and found that they were seemingly trafficked directly from the Department of Health and Human Services. Portman’s investigation suggested that, in this particular case, the proper background checks were not conducted.

“People are kind of just going off of ‘my mom’s friend says that they’re up here already and they’ll take care of me or they’ll be my sponsor,’” says Lewis. “So a lot of it’s more informal. People think they know someone of a distant relative or whomever and that they’ll treat them well but that’s not always the case unfortunately.”

Lewis says more children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have been coming to the United States in the past two years because of the growing transnational gang problem. She says UACs, especially children who live in rural Ohio areas, often become labor trafficking victims on farms and food processing plants.

Source: Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Lewis thinks that it’s hard to track labor trafficking because many foreign nationals become victims, but they go under the radar because they’re undocumented.

“With labor trafficking, sometimes things can tow the line of exploitation versus labor trafficking because with both you have unfair wages and poor living and working conditions,” says Lewis. “But what separates it is the freedom for people to move around and leave. I think a lot of that is hidden.”


Ohio’s Response

After Operation Precious Cargo, the Ohio Attorney General at the time, Richard Cordray, created the Ohio Human Trafficking Commission. It was continued by the current Attorney General Mike DeWine in 2011. Politicians, law enforcement officials, non-profit leaders, and everyday citizens make up this commission. Anyone can join, and it meets quarterly to discuss state initiatives and human trafficking resources.

In 2012, Gov. John Kasich created the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes ten state agencies and comes up with policies and resources to prevent trafficking and help victims. Under this task force, Kasich hired an anti-trafficking coordinator. Ohio was the first state to create this position.

Ohio is working to create ways for people to recognize the signs of trafficking. Rost says anyone who works with children, including educators and child welfare staff, has to take human trafficking training. The state also emphasizes training emergency room personnel and emergency department doctors to recognize signs and symptoms because Rost says a lot of cases get discovered in the emergency department.


Human Trafficking Potentially on the Rise

Nationally, Korytova thinks human trafficking, especially labor trafficking, is increasing. However, it’s hard to know for sure because there’s not enough research, she says.

“The big issue here is the sweat shops where people are trapped and exploited in the factories so that we can buy cheap clothes,” says Korytova. “It’s all product-driven. If you’ve got to reduce the price, there comes a time where the only thing you can reduce are the wages.”

Rost has seen an increase in traffickers using social media to both attract victims and promote sex for sale.

“With sites like backpage.com and Craig’s List and Facebook, there’s different pages and different words that folks know mean a person’s for sale,” says Rost. “So we’ve seen that that’s made it a lot easier. I think one of the positives of social media and a role that media can play is letting people know that human trafficking exists in their state and in Ohio and that it isn’t a crime that occurs far away somewhere else, but that it happens here.”

While trafficking isn’t as common on college campuses, Rost says it still happens.

Rost thinks it’s important for students to know the signs of trafficking because, once they’re in the work force, they might end up working in professions that put them in contact with human trafficking victims. Some common signs are showing physical abuse, being unable to speak to individuals alone, seeming submissive or fearful, or working long or unusual hours.

“There are people who are going to become doctors, there are people studying to become teachers, nurses, social workers, emergency personnel, fire and police — these individuals are the ones we really want to know that there are people out there being trafficked, here are signs and symptoms, and here’s what you can do,” says Rost.

If you think you see something that could potentially be trafficking, report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1–888–373–7888, or submit an anonymous tip on their website.