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Illustration by Chavilah Bennett

5 Years: The Real Traffic Problem

Columbus should be proud of the way it has exposed an atrocity in its own back yards.

Human trafficking, in its simplest definition, is forced or coerced labor or sex trade for someone else’s profit. Slavery. Columbus is generally moving toward an understanding that sex trafficking exists here, that oftentimes victims look a lot like me, that the movie Taken is NOT how it happens, and that human trafficking transcends every socioeconomic status, race, background, and gender.

While we have made great strides and the intolerance for slavery is growing, there is yet a long way to go before we can eradicate human trafficking in Columbus.

But, we’ve made immense progress in law reform and in raising awareness.

Several political champions and the local media have worked toward movement on this issue since the FBI uncovered 78 victims from Toledo in 2000. In 2009, HB 280 was passed, which set mandatory prison terms and enhanced penalties for those charged with compelling/promoting prostitution and/or abduction in Ohio. In 2011, with SB 235, Ohio adopted a standalone human trafficking crime for sex and labor, making it a second-degree felony. In 2013, HB 262 was passed for more penalties, protection of victims, and to mandate training for law enforcement. In 2013, Governor John Kasich hired our first state Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, and we’re starting to see our first few convictions.

Alongside all of this, Columbus saw an upsurge in the number of activists (yes, yours truly) who realized the urgency for awareness, rescue, and restoration.

We’ve spent time with more than 500 victims over the last five years, women who raised their heads up with weak, trembling voices, saying, “Help! You see me as someone with worth. I see myself as a worthless crack whore. I’ve been in this since I was 12, 13, 14 – and I don’t know how to get out.” And those stories are amongst the most powerful of how far Columbus has come. Barb Freeman, a woman I personally journeyed with five years ago through some of these early efforts, will be recognized as a YWCA Woman of Achievement this year!

However, this city has just scratched the surface on addressing victim needs and how to end the demand for the sex trade. Think about the girls up in Cleveland, trapped in that city house for a decade. The smart traffickers figure out how to imprison without four walls, and instead with psychological manipulation. They profit $150,000- $200,000 per year per girl, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And, unfortunately, the demand is not waning.

Extreme trauma, lack of social skills or support network, workforce readiness, stunted grammar and handwriting – the challenges to survivors are immense. And simply put, Columbus isn’t ready yet to deal with this population as unique – and isn’t set up to fund efforts for these victims exclusively. This isn’t a new crime – victims have been in and out of child and family services, our justice system, and our homeless and domestic violence shelters for years. Addiction and mental health services interface with survivors of human trafficking every day. Yet more efforts need to be created particularly for this population, which has arguably the highest barriers for entry into a free life.

More government funding needs to be allocated toward this population (thank you, ADAMH board and City Council!). Unfortunately, we have very few philanthropists investigating how to fund the current, pressing needs. AEP, The Limited, The Women’s Fund, and Ingram-White Castle have led the way for some foundation giving and corporate philanthropy. But it is still a huge need because this population has never before been defined.

Three years ago, I started a food and catering business, Freedom a la Cart, to try to solve the resource gap and allow these women to work where there weren’t any opportunities for felons with such unique needs. And guess what I found? The need for an injection of cash to appropriately work with these beautiful survivors in sustainable ways that they deserve.

As many abolitionists say, these women started with their choices being taken from them – and with the very worst of the worst. So they deserve the very best. Appropriate program design, committed people to support them, a welcoming community to embrace them. We are getting there. We are designing systems to help in the prevention of recruitment. We are shouting loud that we will not tolerate this.

Let’s collectively investigate what it’s going to take in order to continue with the momentum we have. Some of our city’s strongest and boldest contributors to the movement have lost steam and have taken a step back. Instead, let’s make it possible for those doing it well to do it better!

And please, let’s pave the way for the end of demand. Anywhere sex acts are traded for money – escort services, strip and dance clubs, street prostitution, and yes, even pornography – research proves there is a very high propensity and possibility of human trafficking. So let’s be the first city that decides explicitly to end demand. How? It’s easy:

We are a creative, open, innovative, playful, and ethical community. So let’s actively choose mutuality with a creative, open, innovative, and ethical partner (or partners!) – instead of any form of sex commerce.

Only then will we stop contributing to this $30 billion industry, $10 billion of which we, in America, generate.

This is my chance, as one of those activists who has given tirelessly to this issue, to in turn thank the entire Columbus community for embracing the fight against slavery – those who work on it with fervor, and those who support from the sidelines. From those of us in the trenches, we have seen and heard the horror face-to-face. We thank the community for contributing to the action with a spoken intolerance. Now let’s align our values with our actions as we continue to embrace these dear survivors, who are capable of absolutely anything.

Editor’s Note: Human Trafficking didn’t show up in nearly as many headlines in 2009 as it does today, but it’s been a suffocating problem in Ohio for years, the fallout of which has had devastating effects on generations of Columbus women. In the years since, hard-fought grassroots victories have led to statewide legislative change, with local entities like CATCH Court, Gracehaven House, and DOMA helping to establish awareness that has stretched all the way to the Statehouse.