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Can the ‘Cleveland miracle’ help change lives and laws?

Sex trade traps Ohio children.


The miraculous rescue of three kidnapped women in Cleveland on Monday has attracted worldwide attention, but it also spotlights a more everyday tragedy — the estimated 1,000 Ohio children entrapped by the sex trade.

Sex trafficking is more common than people want to believe, according to Ginger Goubeaux, social work manager for Daybreak, Dayton’s shelter for homeless teens. “People are shocked and appalled this happened in Cleveland in this residential neighborhood, yet it happens right in front of us in our own city,” she said. “One of our former clients was a 17-year-old woman who was kidnapped, locked in a basement for a month,and trafficked.”

Advocates believe that Amanda Berry’s courageous escape will increase public awareness and bring about much needed changes in the state’s legal system.

Law enforcement officials are also optimistic that the Cleveland case will bring about change. Todd Lindgren, public affairs specialist for the FBI in Cincinnati, noted that many victims of traffic are reluctant to come forward after years of physical and emotional abuse. “We are hopeful that the rescue in Cleveland will give other victims the strength to come forward, be reunited with their families, help to prosecute those responsible for these evil deeds, and begin the healing process,” he said.

For state Rep. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, a longtime advocate for survivors of human trafficking and sexual slavery, “The Cleveland miracle will help me to highlight the vulnerability of children in our society.”

Fedor hopes the case will provide impetus for the passage of House Bill 130, known as the “end demand” bill, which she recently introduced to reduce consumer demand for sex trafficking. The bill calls for stricter and broader penalties for offenders and also eliminates the current requirement, in cases involving minors, that force, fraud or coercion must be proven in trafficking prosecutions.

“Minors can’t consent to sex, so we should consider this rape,” she said. “We are allowing men to purchase the rape of our children. We have to call it like it is.”

Push to change laws

Experts said the measure is long overdue in a system that has traditionally focused on arresting prostitutes rather than their customers. “If a 45-year-old has sex with a 16-year-old, we charge him with statutory rape; if the same 45-year-old purchases sex with a 16-year-old, we charge her with prostitution,” said Tony Talbott, a member of the Ohio Attorney General’s human trafficking commission and a University of Dayton lecturer in political science and human rights.

No evidence has been presented that Ariel Castro, the suspect in the Cleveland kidnappings, trafficked his victims for profit. But Talbott said the evidence points to sexual slavery, and also, potentially, labor trafficking if the women were forced to clean and cook for him.

“Forced domestic servitude is the biggest form of human trafficking in the world, and it doesn’t just happen in other countries,” he said. “It happens right here. It can be a U.S. citizen or a migrant worker who is brought into a home and not allowed to leave. Pay is withheld and the victim is subjected to physical abuse.”

As with the Castro case, Talbott observed, the perpetrators often get away with it “because homes are not subject to routine inspection, and you’re not going to know that something is wrong unless there’s an obvious sign.”

Given what he knows about victims of human trafficking, Talbott is amazed by the way Amanda Berry seized her chance to escape. “With long-term psychological abuse, there can be a learned helplessness,” he said. “Decisions are taken away from you, and you are trained to be passive.”

Even before the Cleveland case, Ohio has been making great strides in combating human trafficking, Talbott said. In 2010, Ohio was ranked one of the 12 worst states in the nation for human trafficking by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit working to end modern-day slavery. Today Ohio is ranked one of the 10 best states.

Talbott gives gives much of the credit to Fedor’s legislative efforts: “She has been pushing things for years and has shown a strong ability to work across the aisle.” He also credits better law-enforcement training as well as “our two most recent attorney generals and governors who have taken leadership on the issue.”

Challenges remain

Yet the problem of human trafficking, with an estimated 30 million victims worldwide, remains enormous and difficult to measure, Talbott said. The attorney general’s human trafficking commission estimates that 1,078 American-born children between the ages of 12 and 17 are involved in the sex trade in Ohio.”That’s a very conservative estimate, and it doesn’t take immigrant children into account,” Talbott said. “Nationwide, there are an estimated 100,000 children trapped in the sex trade.”

Last year, Goubeaux worked with four Daybreak clients who had been been victims of trafficking. She said homeless youth are especially vulnerable: “We see pimps trafficking them out, but a number were trafficked by their family members, typically for drugs. There was a young lady trafficked by her foster family while living with them. Another was propositioned on the Internet.”

Barbara Freeman, 41, of Columbus said she spent 15 years “locked down in this man’s basement,” unable to hold a job or even pick out her own clothing. She escaped from that hell only to engage in years of prostitution and drug abuse. Her life turned around at last when she was referred to Franklin County’s innovative “CATCH court” — Changing Actions To Change Habits — started by Municipal Court Judge Paul Herbert Herbert’s, which required the women to receive treatment for drug addiction.

After her own years in captivity, Freeman understands how the Cleveland victims were unable to escape for so many years. “This can’t be the first time they were left by themselves, so why did they stay?” she wondered. “I was so brainwashed, I couldn’t go to my own mother’s house. I was locked on the inside, with no screen doors, and no key to go in or out.”

Freeman, who testified last week on behalf of HB 130 before the House Judiciary Committee, hopes the Castro case will open the eyes of the American public: “I really believe it is going to make changes and maybe even some new laws. Women in sexual slavery should be looked at as victims, and something should be done about the predators. We might be doing drugs, but that does not give men the right to rape us or beat us.”

Changing attitudes

Fedor said the Cleveland case demonstrates the need for greater awareness at all levels, including first responders. She was troubled by the Cleveland dispatcher’s response to Berry’s frantic 911 call on Monday and by the fact that he allowed her to get off the phone before help arrived. “He didn’t give her any understanding that she was believed,” she said. “His tone was one of gathering facts.”

In order for real change to happen, Fedor believes, attitudes need to change: “The demand for prostitution drives this whole market-based system. The focus has to be on demand if we want to end this practice. If there’s no demand, there’s no market. It’s called the ‘oldest profession.’ It should be called the oldest oppression of women. There was a lot of shame and stigma, and it was always the woman’s fault. It was never the fault of the buyers or the businessmen selling these women for their profit.”

Attitudes are so ingrained, she said, that even pimps have a sense of entitlement. She noted wryly, “Pimps are very offended that my new bill would require them to register as sex offenders.” The bill also would require spousal notification when someone is arrested for soliciting prostitution.

Last year, Fedor pushed through House Bill 262, known as the “Safe Harbor” bill, which decriminalized prostitution for minors under 18 and required the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline poster to be displayed prominently at all highway rest stops.

Ohio House Speaker Bill Batchelder, R-Medina, told Ohio Public Radio he has been talking about a possible human trafficking bill that would make it easier for law enforcement to discover these types of situations. He said he wants to do more to make it easier for law enforcement and ordinary citizens to detect human trafficking situations.

Talbott said he’s encouraged by his University of Dayton students’ passionate embrace of the issue and who lobbied Ohio legislators to strengthen penalties for abduction and kidnapping if they involved involuntary servitude. “Once you become aware of human trafficking, it’s really hard to ignore it,” he said. “It is not a partisan issue. It’s the greatest human rights challenge of our times.”



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