Ohio is at the center of the child sex trade - a hub of human trafficking. A recent report found that 1,800 people are trafficked into Ohio every year. Besides the 800 immigrants who are annually brought in for sex and labor, recruitment for trafficking victims goes on as well. An estimated 1,000 American-born children in the state are annually forced into prostitution and then kept in it against their will.
Why is Ohio such a hub? There are three main reasons: 1) Ohio has weak laws on human trafficking. 2) Many immigrants are brought into the state across our northern border. 3) Ohio's good roads make the transportation of victims easy. Two years ago, Toledo was listed by the FBI as fourth in the country for being a "port of entry" for the victims. Recently, better surveillance has reduced this city's distinction but it has far from eliminated its trafficking criminality.
To make matters worse, there is a shortage of safe shelters for victims who have been rescued. This is evident all across the country, but it's particularly true in Ohio. It is a tragedy, but even if trafficked victims can be rescued, there is next to no place to receive them. Often they have to be sent to local jails for lack of a better place. A "safe house" would provide shelter and a chance for these young people to rebuild their lives in safety where their pimps and traffickers cannot find them.
A "safe house" means much more than safety. These young girls and women also need access to specialized counseling to help them overcome the terrible trauma of slavery. Their other needs include medical care, skill training for jobs, education, language assistance, immigration paperwork, child care, and transportation. These, along with other services, are needed in order to get them back on their feet. The process may take two years or more. Existing shelters, such as domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters are often ill-equipped to handle the specific needs of these women.
Later this spring it is hoped that the second safe house in all of Ohio, Gracehaven, will be opened, and even then it will have room for only ten victims. In late February, Srs. Mary Joel Campbell, Gemma Doll, and I visited this facility in the greater Columbus area. The building itself is beautiful, well-equipped and stocked. The staff will soon be hired and trained, but the biggest difficulty before it can be opened, is completing the licensing process. This has taken four years of forms and inspections but the red tape is truly daunting. With the yearly number of trafficked victims needing care, obviously there is a great need in our midst.
The Human Trafficking Committee is presently investigating how we as a congregation can help. The first and most important way is to keep the issue in the forefront of our prayers. It is the second fastest growing, most highly lucrative, but extremely hideous crime that only God's power can eradicate.
Another way we can help is by exposing the extent of this criminal activity. The Ohio Attorney General, Mike DeWine, held an all-day conference at the Ohio State House in January, which was attended by three of our Sisters. He made this issue the number one crime to be pursued by his officers during his term. Some of the suggestions made at the conference included writing letters to the editor, sponsoring billboards, getting posters into truck stops, and distributing soap with wrappers printed with help numbers. The latter can be delivered to motels, massage parlors, and truck stops. Supporting appropriate education in our schools continues to be a vital way of addressing the problem.
At another level, some things have already happened. Prior to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, 11 congregations of Sisters in Indiana collaborated in putting pressure as shareholders on those hotels/motels located within 50 miles of the game. Their effort resulted in the education of at least some of these employees on how to spot and report trafficking activity on their premises. Several girls were found and returned to their families.
Obviously a safe house is a tremendously needed facility and one which would have many ramifications for women-to-women ministry.