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Community agency and OHIO students team up to raise awareness of human trafficking

You may have seen that hollow look in a person’s eye and not known what it was. The look speaks of hopelessness, of someone being forced to sell themselves just to stay alive.

We know of human trafficking, but mostly in an abstract way. We tell ourselves it’s a Third World problem that couldn’t happen in the United States, much less Ohio.

Rebecca Miller disagrees. She is director of the Athens County Child Advocacy Center (CAC), which recently received a $5,800 state grant to help bring attention to the issue locally. The CAC, administered through a partnership with Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, is a nonprofit organization that provides services for child sexual abuse victims and their families. Miller also works to connect students with service-learning opportunities at the center, as well as provide education and resources to the University, youth and community about child abuse and neglect. She also co-teaches an OHIO course for child and family studies majors.

“There is a lot of attention on international human trafficking and sex tourism,” Miller said. “But I don’t think there are many people aware of the significant issue of domestic human trafficking. I think we are going to find that it’s a bigger problem than we thought. Increased awareness may show that labor and sex trafficking is happening in our region.”

The most basic definition of human trafficking is the trade of human flesh for sexual and/or labor exploitation. It is considered modern-day slavery, and by some estimates has spawned a shadowy $32 billion industry that exploits 27 million people worldwide. 

Toledo is among the largest human trafficking hubs in this country, according to those familiar with the issue. Because of its location, the northwest Ohio city is ideal for transient communities that traffic in human beings. It serves as a gateway to Detroit and the West, with several major highways running through it. 

According to Elizabeth Ranade Janis, the state of Ohio’s first-ever anti-trafficking coordinator, more than 1,000 Ohio children a year are victims of human trafficking. The issue has prompted Gov. John Kasich to create the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force and direct $523,000 over the next two years to community agencies such as the Athens County CAC to educate the public about the issue. The task force notes that a key problem surrounding the issue is that many aren’t aware of it.

To help change that here, Miller and the CAC are teaming up with the student organization Ohio University End Slavery Movement (OU-ESM). The student group is “more than just an organization,” says its founder, senior communication major Megan Gallagher. “It’s a movement.”

Gallagher counts herself among those who didn’t know much about human trafficking before hearing about the issue at a Christian conference she attended in January.

“It really hit me hard and stuck in my heart,” she said. “So [OU-ESM’s] main thing is you can’t prevent something if nobody knows about it. Prevention is huge for us.” 

The student group and the CAC plan to host an End Slavery Week from Nov. 4-7, which will include panel discussions with human trafficking experts, documentary screenings, guest speakers and an art show. 

While there has never been a prosecution for human trafficking in Athens County, Miller said, research on the issue suggests that the area could be at risk. Solveig Spjeldnes, assistant professor of social work, has studied the topic and says the problem is often found in impoverished areas. Southeast Ohio counties such as Athens consistently rank among the state’s poorest. 

“In areas where there is little upward mobility, trafficking is appealing,” Spjeldnes said. “If they’ve got nothing and the risk of prosecution is low, the money makes such a business tempting.” 

Most victims are women and children, she said, and some are runaways looking for a way out of a turbulent family situation. Traffickers target abused children who can be easily manipulated. The average age that girls are coerced into sex work is 13.

“They look for that haunted look in the eye,” Spjeldnes said. “Traffickers look for kids who have been abused and are vulnerable, and they can identify the signs. So the people who are already victims become re-victimized.”

If you have questions or concerns about a possible human trafficking situation, or want to learn more about the Nov. 4-7 End Slavery Week, contact the Athens County Child Advocacy Center at 740-566-4847.

Na’Tyra Green is a student writer for Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Wellness.