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Professor inducted into hall of fame

Published: Monday, October 12, 2009

Updated: Monday, October 12, 2009 03:10

Frances Strickland (left), Celia Williamson (center) and Governor Ted Strickland (right) at Williams

Courtesy of Celia Williamson

Frances Strickland (left), Celia Williamson (center) and Governor Ted Strickland (right) at Williamson’s induction ceremony into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame on Aug. 26.

The city of Toledo is currently fourth in the nation for the volume of investigations and rescue of children from underground human trafficking networks; however, Celia Williamson, a professor in the department of social work at UT, said Toledo is "just at the tip of the iceberg."

After 15 years of working to solve issues surrounding human trafficking, Williamson was inducted into the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame on Aug. 26. Williamson said the induction ceremony was just another chance to bring up the issue and urge people to take responsibility in their own communities to solve the problem.

"Toledo, I think, is further along than the other cities, but Toledo is nowhere [near] where it needs to be in terms of responding to trafficking, so I'm excited to get the awards because I get another avenue to talk about what needs to be done and the more I talk about it, the more people do, and the better I could sleep, and that would be the award," Williamson said.

Williamson said she first got involved in the issue of human trafficking in 1993 while working as a social worker in the North End of Toledo.

"I would drive into work every day and I would see these women out on the streets and I really didn't like them myself. I thought it was terrible because I was trying to work with kids and families and here are these women," she said.

Williamson eventually decided to engage prostitutes in Toledo, interviewing them and conducting research into their situations over a six month period. Many of the prostitutes Williamson spoke with explained that they were recruited and manipulated into prostitution when they were children, and had lived horrible lives filled with violence and drug abuse.

"Once I heard those stories, it changed my life," she said. "I could no longer ignore the issue, I couldn't sleep at night, I couldn't go in and pretend I was doing good work."

That same year Williamson and other community members started Second Chance, a program that works with women involved in prostitution and children that have been trafficked into the sex trade. Today, Second Chance works with the local FBI task force and consults with programs throughout Ohio and across the nation that are beginning to respond to human trafficking, Williamson said.

"In the beginning, I did struggle by myself for a long time trying to get people to listen that this was going on," she said.

According to Williamson, it took about 10 years before people really started listening about the issue of human trafficking.

"I don't think its people's fault. I think it's my fault in that it took me a decade to learn how to approach people," she said. "I was naively thinking that people were going to reach out to these people because they were dying and drug addicted and taken against their will most times, and that's not the case."

Williamson said she finally realized how to utilize the media to spread the message about human trafficking and change the public's perspective on prostitution, which is that prostitutes make a personal choice to sell their bodies.

"What you need to do is change the perspective to say that these women who are out on the streets are not there by choice, they're prostituted by other people or by drug addiction or by poverty and those are things people can understand," she said. "I didn't understand that the first thing I needed to do was re-educate people and once that happened then there was more support than we were ready to handle."

The adult prostitutes that are out on the streets are actually the children who slipped through unnoticed into the underground human trafficking network, Williamson said. While the actual number of human trafficking victims is unknown, Williamson said researchers estimate there are 100,000 to 300,000 teenage runaways each year, and in Toledo, runaways are approached by traffickers within two weeks.

"In Toledo it has been difficult for people to wrap their head around because this is a recruitment city, it's not a destination city, so we will have kids recruited here and then shipped off," she said.

According to Williamson, 85 percent of Toledo children who are recruited into the sex trade are shipped off to large cities like Chicago or Las Vegas where the demand is higher.

"When you turn on the news or you see these HBO specials or whatever, and you see these young girls walking in high heels in Chicago or Las Vegas, some of those are our kids," she said. "We don't get them back until they're adults and they're crack addicted and now they're on the street and now we say we don't want to work with them because they chose to go out there."

Williamson said many people in society don't fully understand the issue of human trafficking as a domestic problem, and instead, they see it as an issue abroad. According to Williamson, 14,000 to 17,000 victims are shipped from other countries and forced into labor trafficking or sex trafficking within the U.S.

"In Toledo they might be in buffets, they might be in massage parlors, they might be in migrant camps, those types of things, but most people think that's the majority of the victims of trafficking, if they even have a concept that victims are here, but overwhelmingly, the majoring are domestic victims, victims born here, raised here, and trafficked here," she said.

Human trafficking is the second largest illegal enterprise in the world, preceded by drugs and followed by weapons, Williamson said.

While drugs and weapons are sold and then used, Williamson said many researchers predict that human trafficking will soon become the largest illegal enterprise in the world because bodies can be sold countless times for sex or labor. Large-scale organized crime, "mom and pop" businesses and legitimate businesses are all involved in the human trafficking "chain," Williamson said.

"There is a whole chain that is economically benefiting off the backs of kids, so it's not just the trafficker and the victim," Williamson said.

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