While a detective with the Highland County Sheriff’s Office said his agency has investigated only two human trafficking cases involving local women in the last three years, an area activist said it’s likely that the scope of the problem in Highland County is wider than many think.
The (Toledo) Blade reported Sunday that the rate of human trafficking investigations in Ohio rose to its highest level since the state began keeping track of such numbers.
According to The Blade, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Human Trafficking Commission issued a report last week that showed authorities investigated 202 human trafficking cases in 2017, a 50-percent increase from the previous year.
The majority of those cases involved the sex trade, The Blade reported, and the commission’s report identified drugs, alcohol and other addictions as risk factors for victims in 100 cases last year.
DeWine said the rise in human trafficking cases across the state is connected to the state’s opioid addiction crisis.
“Drugs are used to control,” he said. “Because opioids are so addictive, it makes it easier for a pimp, makes it easier for a human-trafficker to control a victim.”
Highland County Sheriff’s Detective Randy Sanders told The Times-Gazette on Monday that the sheriff’s office has only investigated two cases in the last three years where local women were exploited in sex trade operations.
“We’ve had two cases where women from here have been involved in drugs and made it to the city, and ended up with somebody supplying them drugs and pretty much pimping them out for a period of time,” Sanders said.
In both cases, one of which was the center of a federal investigation in Chicago and the other a one-man operation in Atlanta, the traffickers exploited the women’s heroin addiction, according to Sanders.
“Both of them… ended up getting away fairly quickly,” he said.
When it comes to human trafficking, Sanders said people often think of the 2008 film “Taken,” which tells the story of a father attempting to rescue his daughter from European sex traffickers, but in the majority of human trafficking cases, the victim isn’t kidnapped so much as they are exploited.
“It’s more the young females get hooked on heroin and then somebody just takes advantage of them, pimping them out,” he said. “It’s actually been going on. I know it still goes on every day.”
Last year, The Times-Gazette spoke with a local woman who said she had been pimped out in Dayton by a man who supplied her with nerve pills.
The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she had been using drugs since she was 15 years old.
Kelly Mettler, an advocate with local nonprofit REACH For Tomorrow, is directing a regional effort to bring together members of the faith community with social services workers for education on human trafficking.
Coordinators of the program, funded by a grant from the attorney general’s office, hope to form human trafficking task forces in communities, bring human trafficking education to local schools and study how poverty and trauma affect sex trafficking.
Mettler said she believes human trafficking happens in the area far more than people think.
“It’s very hidden,” she said. “People who are trafficked don’t identify as someone who has been trafficked. They’ll say they’ve been abused, or say ‘I just had to survive,’ so basically what happens is they don’t self-identify at all.”
As a result, one of the initiative’s biggest challenges is finding data on human trafficking in the region, Mettler said.
“What people used to think of trafficking was that it happened in faraway lands,” she said. “But human trafficking knows no zip code. Wherever you are, it’s happening. With the drug epidemic, when someone is in need of heroin to keep from being dope-sick, they’ll do whatever they need to do to get that 20-ball of heroin.”
DeWine said he believes human trafficking convictions are “grossly underreported,” since suspects are often not charged with the specific crime of “trafficking in persons.”
Both the number of arrests and criminal convictions decreased, according to the commission’s report. There were 70 arrests last year, the lowest number recorded since 2013. There were 18 convictions, the lowest total since 2014.
Of the 208 people identified as potential victims of human trafficking, the report found that 18 percent were minors. The report also found all but 10 of the 221 suspected traffickers were involved in the sex trade.
Ohio has changed its approach to human trafficking in recent years by increasing penalties and approaching those forced into prostitution as victims instead of criminals.
DeWine said the most important thing is saving the victim.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.