This article was originally published June 6, 2017.
By Brad Wenstrup
“It’s just as easy as ordering a pizza, to order a person.”
These haunting words, spoken by an undercover Dayton detective, encapsulate a fragment of both the horror and pervasiveness of the human trafficking crisis facing our country in the digital age. “It’s everywhere because of the online environment,” the detective said. “There’s no boundaries or limitations.”
It is true – with the rise of the internet, human trafficking has become one of the fastest growing businesses of organized crime in the world.
The statistics are staggering. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has estimated human trafficking generates billions annually in illegal profits around the globe – second only to drug trafficking. As many as 17,500 people may be trafficked into the United States every year, according to the Congressional Research Service, while approximately 100,000 American citizens may be victims of trafficking within the United States.
It’s happening in our backyard: Ohio ranks number five in the nation for the most human trafficking cases. Last year, 375 Ohio trafficking cases were reported from 1,352 calls to the national hotline, according to Polaris, a nonprofit tracking trafficking in America and across the world. These 2016 numbers are nearly four times those reported for 2013.
Children and young people are particularly vulnerable, as perpetrators increasingly manipulate advances in technology to lure their victims. One report cited 13 years old as the most common age in Ohio for youth to become victims of child sex trafficking.
These numbers are sickening – but it is important to remember they are so much more than mere numbers. They are faces. Names. Individuals. Stories. Behind each statistic is a human being whose worth has been objectified and traded as part of a cruel transaction. Each number represents a criminal that must be brought to justice.
But hope exists. In recent years, we’ve seen forward movement towards combatting human trafficking here in Ohio and across the U.S. A Human Trafficking Task Force was formed through the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to coordinate and utilize state, local and federal law enforcement resources to combat these crimes and bring offenders to justice. Last year, 103 people were arrested through the task force. In recent years, our state government has strengthened Ohio’s laws protecting victims and punishing perpetrators, and cooperation among agencies has increased.
Federal efforts have increased as well, and I am pleased the administration is signaling its strong involvement in this fight. Just this past month, the White House hosted a bipartisan roundtable with lawmakers, anti-trafficking experts, and human trafficking victims to develop strategies and objectives to strengthen the federal government’s fight against child trafficking and exploitation.
These are promising steps towards progress, but much work remains to be done. We, as Americans, have a moral obligation to stand and fight such injustice. The exploitation and abuse of any human being – but especially young, innocent children – is an affront to our nation’s founding values of life, liberty, human dignity, and the rule of law.
Recently, during “Combating Trafficking and Child Protection Week” in Congress, the House of Representatives passed 12 bills to combat child abuse and exploitation. They make a range of much-needed reforms. The Child Protection Improvements Act (H.R. 695) ensures youth-serving organizations have access to national background checks through the FBI’s database for prospective employees or volunteers. Currently, too many youth-serving organizations only have access to state-level background check systems, which can leave dangerous gaps. The Put Trafficking Victims First Act (H.R. 2473) directs the Department of Justice to provide victim-centered training on investigating and processing human trafficking cases to law enforcement and government agencies on the federal, state, and local level. The Trafficking Survivors Relief Act (H.R. 459) aims to ensure minors who are trafficked are treated as victims – not criminals – and given an opportunity for a fresh start.
The bills also ensure investigators have more efficient access to critical evidence necessary to stop child predators, strengthen tools for the prosecution of perpetrators, increase the requirements for lifelong registration and reporting for offenders, and better equip law enforcement to protect children from harm. All of these were bipartisan bills, passed by bipartisan majorities.
Today, we face a myriad of challenges, many of which polarize our country strictly along party lines. This issue is different. The protection of our children and all human life is an American priority that transcends politics and serves as a pillar of our national identity. Washington can agree. We the people can agree. No human being should ever have to experience such heinous exploitation. We must stand and act – and we must do it together.