By Cornelius Frolik and Katy Steele
Staff Writers Updated 3:05 PM Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Ohio lawmakers, community coalition members and law enforcement officials have ratcheted up efforts to curb sex trafficking in the state by raising awareness of the activity and strengthening legislation aimed at punishing offenders.
Local members of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society and the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church plan a conference in Centerville March 2012 to raise awareness for human trafficking and domestic violence.
But some local nonprofit and faith-based groups said more support services are needed to help people rescued from sexual servitude.
Local anti-trafficking activists are offering support for House Bill 262, recently introduced in the Ohio House by Rep. Teresa Fedor, D-Toldeo, which protects underage victims of sex-trafficking from prosecution and commitment to the juvenile justice system.
Advocates said the legislation would supplement an Ohio law which took effect in Marchby protecting victims from prosecution and providing funds to bolster their recovery.
“House Bill 262 is really, really needed,” said Linda McNelly, executive director and founder of Stop Human Trafficking Dayton. “When children are picked off the street for prostitution or curfew, they go from victim to being put in the juvenile court system.”
This month, Georgia enacted one of the nation’s toughest laws to crack down on human trafficking. It imposes harsh punishments and provides treatment options for victims.
An estimated 100,000 U.S. children are victims of sexual trafficking each year, according to a 2010 report by the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission.
Toledo ranked fourth in the nation for the number of arrests, investigations and rescues of domestic minor sex-trafficking victims, according to the report.
Sex-trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the world, with an estimated 27 million people already enslaved, according to national studies.
Until last year, Ohio was one of only a handful of states that did not have laws specifically addressing sex trafficking.
But in one of his last acts as governor, Ted Strickland signed into law a measure that makes human trafficking a second-degree felony offense.
John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said prosecutors already had sufficient criminal statutes at their disposal to effectively try sex-traffickers, such as kidnapping, abduction and compelling prostitution charges.
But Anthony Talbott, University of Dayton professor of political science and human rights, said Ohio had lax laws that earned the state an unfortunate reputation as a good place to engage in modern slavery.
“Until last year, we did not have an anti-human trafficking law and traffickers specifically targeted Ohio,” he said. “It was essentially like we left the keys in the ignition and the door unlocked on our car — we didn’t have laws to do anything.”
Talbott praises the new state law, but said no one has been prosecuted under it yet. He added the Ohio law is still not as good as federal human trafficking laws, which are among the best in the world.
Talbott and other anti-trafficking activists said passage of HB 262 is needed to keep underage victims from being prosecuted for prostitution. Under federal law, anyone under the age of 18 who engages in prostitution is a victim of sex-trafficking, Talbott said.
“The safe harbor legislation outlines a process wherein the state will cease to treat victims of child sex trafficking as criminals,” said Celia Williamson, a professor with the University of Toledo who worked on the state commission’s report on sexual trafficking. “They will be under the control of child protection instead of juvenile court.”
Sex-trafficking is a big problem in Toledo, but the activity occurs across the state and the Miami Valley.
On April 6, police in Tipp City pulled over Toledo resident Rodney L. Brown for a traffic stop and found a Michigan woman in his vehicle who said Brown forced her to engage in prostitution, according to a criminal compliant filed in U.S. District Court.
The woman told authorities Brown forced her to have sex with men for money, which he then kept. She claimed she only participated because she feared Brown would injure or kill her. Brown is currently facing six federal charges.
Victims of sexual slavery are usually in need of counseling, drug and alcohol treatment and medical assistance for sexually-transmitted diseases and other afflictions. But support is not always easy to find.
The Oasis House, 6333 North Dixie Drive, is a faith-based ministry in Harrison Twp. for women involved in the adult sex industry. It is located near several adult clubs, which employ nearly 500 dancers. Prostitution often occurs at strip clubs and truck stops.
The Oasis House ministry offers counseling, training towards a high school diploma, qualifying for state benefits like food stamps, learning financial management skills, developing resumes, finding housing and other assistance.
Teams of volunteers bring food prepared by local churches into the area strip clubs, usually on Wednesday evenings, serving about 100 women each week.
“Our biggest problem is that in order for women who have no hope and no other means of survival to make it, they need a safe, supportive place to be,” said Cheryl Oliver, executive director of the Oasis House for Women in Harrison Twp. “There’s virtually nothing at all in Dayton to help adult women in the sex trade.”
Oliver said the YMCA is planning to make beds available for women in crisis who are leaving the sex industry and looking for a place to go.
A group called Gracehaven in Columbus is planning to open a shelter for girls under the age of 18 who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation. It would be the first in Ohio.
McNelly, with Stop Human Trafficking Dayton, said the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves, but more resources are needed to combat trafficking.
From 6 to 8 p.m. July 19, McNelly’s group is hosting a training session, “Human Trafficking 101,” at the Dayton Racquet Club. Professor Talbott will be the presenter.
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-0749 or cfrolik@DaytonDailyNews.com.