Because of its proximity to Canada and its good interstate highway system, and based on the number of arrests, investigations and rescues of victims, Ohio is one the nation’s top five states for human trafficking.
Theresa L. Flores hardly looks the part of someone who might have crossed paths with human trafficking.
She was the daughter of a well-to-do Irish-Catholic family in suburban Columbus. Her idyllic life was shattered when, at 15, she was drugged and raped by an older boy who attended her parish. He blackmailed her with photos into becoming a prostitute. She was repeatedly “bought and sold” by a gang of men who took her as far away as Detroit to work.
Because they kept her under surveillance and threatened to kill her family, she told no one.
“When it happened to me, I thought I was the only one,” said Flores, who spoke recently at Walsh University. “For 20 years, I had no idea this was happening to other people.”
Human trafficking — the business of exploiting people for cheap labor or commercial sex — is the world’s second-largest criminal enterprise (after drug trafficking).
Flores said more people are being bought and sold around the world today than when slavery was legal. Estimates vary from 12 million to 30 million victims, and many are children.
OHIO IS IDEAL
Because of its proximity to Canada and its good interstate highway system, and based on the number of arrests, investigations and rescues of victims, Ohio is one the nation’s top five states for human trafficking. About 1,000 minors are being trafficked in the state at this moment, according to the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission.
“It’s everywhere a kid is,” said Flores, a social worker who operates Gracehaven House, a shelter for trafficking victims in Dublin, Ohio. “Traffickers are getting blatant because no one’s doing anything. What’s happening to us that we’re at this place in our country?”
In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to enhance the government’s ability to prevent, prosecute and track human trafficking. In 2010, the Ohio Legislature passed Senate Bill 235, which increases the penalties for criminals who engage in human trafficking.
Flores said that the increased sexualization of music, movies, TV, toys, video games, even Halloween costumes, is making children more vulnerable to be preyed upon by traffickers. She said that introducing such slang as “pimping” into the mainstream also makes it seem less harmless and ignores the fact that pimps are human traffickers.
“It’s not about sex, it’s an economic issue,” she said. “What drives this is money. It’s second only to drug trafficking. Even drug traffickers are getting into it because there’s less penalty for human trafficking.”
Victims often can be found working in the pornography industry and at ethnic restaurants, sweatshops, nail salons, 24-hour massage parlors and strip clubs, and selling candy or magazines door to door.
Eighty percent of victims are women, which also makes it a women’s rights issue, Flores said. Teen girls frequently are pulled into sex trafficking by phony solicitations for modeling and acting auditions and even by family members and older boyfriends.
Page 2 of 2 - “Right now, 350,000 American kids are at risk, and 100,000 are being trafficked right now,” Flores said. “It’s rampant.”
WHAT TO DO
She urges people to call authorities if they suspect something suspicious. She said she began to emerge from her enslavement when she escaped from a motel in Detroit after being “auctioned off” to 20 men.
“The word ‘terrified’ doesn’t even come close,” she said. “I literally passed out from the pain.”
Clad only in pajamas, she ran to an adjoining coffee shop, where a suspicious waitress called police.
“She knew something was wrong, that I was out of place there, and she asked me something no one else had: ‘Can I help you?’ ”