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Change in Ohio trafficking laws

On December 6, 2010

Before the Ohio Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 235 on Wednesday, a child seeking help from authorities after being involved in human sex trafficking in Toledo would be prosecuted for prostitution. Senate Bill 235 has changed that, making human sex trafficking a standalone felony in Ohio.

This new legislation allows prosecutors to have a clear-cut punishment for offenders who exploit children and illegal immigrants, while protecting the victims involved.

"Now we can begin to provide prosecutors with the tools they need to go after traffickers," said Celia Williamson, professor of social services at the University of Toledo who worked with State Senator Teresa Fedor in composing the legislation. "This is a way for the state to start to recognize that children are not responsible for having sex with adults. That's child abuse, but they continue to prosecute the child."

Before this legislation, penalties for human traffickers were based on an accumulation of various federal offenses.

Bill supporters describe human trafficking as "modern-day slavery," a problem well-recognized in Toledo, which ranks fourth in the nation in the number of human trafficking arrests each year.

Previous attempts to push similar legislation through the Ohio House and Senate have failed five times, according to Williamson.

In a press release, Fedor acknowledged the Senate passing the legislation was a victory resulting from five years of work.

"In 2005, we were first awakened to the width and breadth of human trafficking in Ohio when more than 30 minors from Toledo were caught in a prostitution ring," she said.

In 2009, Jeff Wilbarger, part-time instructor of mathematics at UT, began the Daughter Project, a non-profit Christian-based organization in Perrysburg, Ohio that reaches out to victims of sex trafficking.

Wilbarger said a felony conviction is proportionate to the heinous nature of the sex trafficking business.

"There is no crime more egregious than sex trafficking," he said. "It is sexist, sometimes racist, always de-humanizing, and it causes immeasurable trauma to its victims."

Williamson said the children who become part of human trafficking are vulnerable to exploitation and the majority of victims come from poverty, have substance-abusing parents, are homeless and runaways, gay males or have mental health issues.

"All those kids are going to be vulnerable to needing something, and someone will come in and magically provide for them, but it's never what it seems," she said.

Williamson said human trafficking has become a sophisticated underground business that involves several persons who act as recruiters and are often also underage.

"It's a manipulation process, and over time, they convince you that you really can't make a decision and you can't make a move without asking them. You really rely on them," she said.

"Often times your network of friends is doing this and you all know you are doing this, but you don't really tell other people, and so you are trapped and you feel ‘If I don't do this, something dreadful will happen to my family, something dreadful is going to happen to me.'"

Williamson said they are only beginning to make advances in human trafficking by putting the blame where blame belongs - on the trafficker, not the victim.

According to Williamson, there is still a deep level of sexism, racism and homophobia latent in trafficking issues.

"The law does not say that women involved in prostitution are the ones committing the crime, but you see that 95 percent of the time women are arrested and the men are not," she said. "When you start doing that to kids, that's unacceptable because that tells the kid that ‘yes, you are responsible for your own victimization,' and that's not the message we want to send."

According to Williamson, human trafficking is about supply and demand, and the focus has been restricted to the supply.

"You are never going to reduce the problem, but men are very protected in our society and so going after them is very difficult," she said. "It's difficult for society to see that every human being is valuable. They say it, but I really believe that many people still think there are some expendable people."

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