Human trafficking in Ohio

By Melinda Sykes Haggerty

Today, there are as many as 27 million victims of human trafficking across the globe.1 Though individual states and the federal government define human trafficking differently, human trafficking essentially involves people being forced to engage in sexual activity or labor services for someone else’s profit.

The 2008 movie Taken brought much-needed public awareness to this problem in its portrayal of a teenage girl who is abducted on a trip to Paris, drugged and sold for sex across Europe. In the movie, the girl’s retired CIA father ultimately rescues her and returns her home to safety in America. America—where young girls are safe from being drugged, raped and forced to sell sex, right?

Wrong. Recent media attention has shined a spotlight on the horrors of human trafficking in the United States. This July, the FBI rescued 105 sex trafficked children in a cross-country sting that targeted pimps who forced these girls into prostitution.2 Minors as young as 12 years old are recruited into prostitution in the United States.3 The sad truth is that the reality of traffickers using lies, manipulation, threats and drugs to force young girls to sell themselves for sex is nothing new.

The way we view and respond to these girls is novel. There is a growing realization that the women and girls (and sometimes men and boys) engaged in selling themselves are often current or former human trafficking victims who should be given supportive services rather than criminals who should be given jail time. This perspective has spurred increased efforts at both the state and federal levels to rescue and restore human trafficking victims and prosecute criminals who prey on those most vulnerable for their own profit.

Federal human trafficking framework: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act
The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), passed in 2000, was the first comprehensive federal law to address human trafficking. The federal law defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:

  • Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  • The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.4
Trafficking in the United States involves both foreign and U.S. citizens and occurs in many locations, including brothels, massage parlors, on neighborhood streets, hotels, restaurants, agricultural farms and in domestic service situations in private homes.5 Despite the prevalence of both labor and sex trafficking, it is the sex trafficking of minors that is most often (and passionately) discussed. The federal law provides broad protection for minor sex trafficking victims by not requiring proof of force, fraud or coercion in these cases. The law recognizes that minors are particularly vulnerable to manipulation by traffickers and that they cannot consent to being sexually exploited for money.

Ohio statutes and cases
Ohio has been on the front lines in the battle to combat human trafficking. Attorney General Mike DeWine re-created the Human Trafficking Commission (formerly named the “Trafficking in Persons Study Commission” under Attorney General Cordray) in August 2011 to better understand human trafficking in Ohio and to assist in developing solutions to address human trafficking at the state level. A 2010 Ohio Attorney General Trafficking in Persons Study Commission Report estimated that more than 1,000 minors are sex trafficked in Ohio annually.6 A follow-up study released in 2012 surveyed more than 300 women involved in the sex trade in five Ohio cities and asked when and how they were recruited and surveyed their experiences. The study revealed that 35 percent of these women were sex trafficked as minors, and were most often recruited at some point by a female who was also involved in selling herself or who first acted like a friend.7

Those who were sex trafficked as children reported having experienced child abuse and neglect, having a close family member involved in the sex trade, suffering depression, being raped, having difficulty in school and being in proximity of those who bought or sold others for sex.8 The biggest risk factor associated with a child recruited into sex trafficking was having a history of running away from home. Sixty-three percent of those who were sex trafficked as minors reported having run away one or more times before they were trafficked.

This report, though it only covered five Ohio cities, shows that human trafficking is real in Ohio and warns of the risk factors that professionals need to identify to be able to intervene when a minor is at risk of being sex trafficked.9

In 2005, the scope of the problem in Ohio was illuminated when the FBI sting “Operation Precious Cargo” recovered 151 sex trafficking victims, 78 of whom were from Toledo, and 45 of whom were minors.10 As a result of Operation Precious Cargo, the FBI created the Northwest Ohio Violent Crimes Against Children November/December 2013 Ohio Lawyer 9 Task Force in 2006 to investigate child sex trafficking cases in Toledo. This task force has had great success investigating human trafficking in Toledo and securing long sentences for those who sexually exploit children. Most recently, the task force charged a Toledo woman with interstate sex trafficking after she allegedly transported a minor from Ohio to Michigan in December 2009 to engage in commercial sex acts.11

The success of the task force model to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases led to its replication at the state level in central Ohio. In 2012, Attorney General DeWine announced the creation of the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force. This task force is part of the Attorney General’s Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission and is made up primarily of officers from the Columbus Police Department, along with officers from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), the Powell Police Department, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).12 The task force also collaborates with a victim services coordinator from the Salvation Army who specializes in working with human trafficking victims to ensure that victim’s needs are being met, and with local and federal prosecutors to see that these traffickers are brought to justice.

Task force investigations already have led to the prosecution of at least five traffickers in the central Ohio area. One case involved four Chillicothe residents who pled guilty to bringing a woman to Columbus and forcing her to have sex with more than a dozen men over a period of a few days.13 Another trafficker the task force investigated was charged with trafficking women by posting online ads advertising sex and withholding drugs from the women until they complied with his demands to have sex with men for money.14 As public awareness of human trafficking grows, law enforcement will receive more tips that will lead to further investigations and prosecutions under the task force model in the future.

Legislative efforts in Ohio have spurred awareness of human trafficking in the state and have provided tools to prosecute traffickers and provide much-needed services to victims. Ohio’s first stand-alone human trafficking law became effective in 2011 with the passage of Senate Bill 235, which created the crime of trafficking in persons in the Ohio Revised Code. Trafficking in persons is defined as to knowingly recruit, lure, entice, isolate, harbor, transport, provide, obtain, or maintain, or knowingly attempt to do any of these things, to a person knowing that the person will be either be:

1) Subjected to involuntary servitude (labor trafficking); or

2) Compelled to engage in sexual activity for hire, engage in a performance that is obscene, sexually oriented, or nudity oriented, or be a mode or participant in the production of material that is obscene, sexually oriented, or nudity oriented (sex trafficking).15

The statute explicitly defines compulsion in a trafficking in persons case, as requiring proof that the victim’s will was overcome by “force, fear, duress, or intimidation.”16

In June 2012, the Ohio Legislature passed House Bill 262, Ohio’s Safe Harbor Law, to strengthen the trafficking in persons statute. This new statute raised the penalty for trafficking in persons from a second degree to a first degree felony with a mandatory prison term of 10 to 15 years.

Additionally, sex traffickers convicted of trafficking in persons are now required to register as sex offenders.17 Furthermore, the penalty for obstruction of justice in trafficking in persons cases was raised to a second degree felony to discourage traffickers (or those associated with traffickers) from intimidating the victim witnesses to discourage their cooperation in the case.18 Penalties in Ohio law now closely mirror those at the federal level, making state prosecution of these cases a reasonable alternative to federal proceedings.

The Safe Harbor Law also provides assistance for human trafficking victims seeking to heal from the trauma of this crime. The law created an abeyance procedure that allows juvenile judges to hold a hearing to determine whether a minor in juvenile court is a human trafficking victim and provides a procedure temporarily to set aside a complaint for a prostitution-related or other offense related to a minor’s human trafficking victimization pending the completion of diversion actions.19 This provision was a compromise in the debate over how best to ensure the safety and wellbeing of minor human trafficking victims.

Some states have passed laws that prohibit arresting a minor for prostitution-related offenses on the basis that the arrest further traumatizes the victim. However, the realities of “trauma bonding” in human trafficking cases and the level of control by traffickers over their victims make it likely that a minor victim will return to the abusive trafficker after rescue. The abeyance procedure created by the Safe Harbor Law allows minor human trafficking victims to be held and supervised by the juvenile court until services are provided to address the underlying trauma that often keeps the victim chained to the trafficker long after being rescued.

The Safe Harbor Law also contains provisions to assist adult human trafficking victims. Victims of human trafficking now can apply to the court to have their prior solicitation, loitering to engage in solicitation and prostitution records expunged.20 This provision seeks to reverse the damage that has been created by decades of simply arresting the victim for prostitution without investigating whether the victim might have been forced to commit the act.

Finally, the law authorizes human trafficking victims to file a civil suit against their traffickers and receive compensatory and punitive damages for harm sustained as a result of their victimization.21

Another major component of the Safe Harbor Law requires law enforcement training and data collection. All peace officers now are required to have training in handling trafficking in persons violations as a part of basic peace officer training.22 The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, through the Ohio Peace Officer’s Training Academy, has woven human trafficking training into the curriculum of the basic peace officer training for new law enforcement officers, and has created a series of online and in-person training for current law enforcement officers. Since the passage of H.B. 262 last summer, law enforcement officers have taken 35,000 online human trafficking courses.

New legislation, training efforts, and increased public awareness have resulted in increased human trafficking investigations and prosecutions across the state. According to data collected by the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations, local law enforcement agencies report 30 trafficking in persons investigations since last summer.23 The past year has brought the first cases under the state trafficking in persons law and the first conviction. Kevin Donaldson was convicted by a jury verdict in Wood County: he received a 12-year prison sentence. Other defendants have been arrested and charged with trafficking in persons in Knox, Delaware and Franklin counties, and have been convicted by trial or plea of lesser related charges.

Trafficking in persons cases are particularly ripe for plea bargaining because human trafficking victims are often too afraid to testify against their traffickers, or the victim is unavailable for trial because of an unresolved drug addiction that began as a coping mechanism to deal with the trafficking victimization. State efforts are leading to the identification of more human trafficking victims and getting stiffer penalties for the traffickers who exploit them.

There are many ongoing efforts at the state level further to address human trafficking. House Bill 130, the “End Demand Act,” was developed by the Legal and Legislative Subcommittee of Attorney General DeWine’s Human Trafficking Commission. The bill is being sponsored by Representative Teresa Fedor, the Legal and Legislative Subcommittee chair, and was introduced on April 16, 2013. This legislation will make it easier to target those who recruit minors into sex trafficking by removing the need to prove that the victim was compelled to act. If passed, this law will make the Ohio Trafficking in Persons law resemble the federal TVPA by recognizing that minors are more easily manipulated by traffickers and cannot consent to commercial sexual activity. The bill also targets johns who purchase sex with minors, makes it easier to terminate the parental rights of parents who traffic their children, and provides greater protections for victim witnesses during the trial. The End Demand Act will further assist law enforcement in arresting and prosecuting those who prey upon our most vulnerable.

As Ohio continues to make great strides in combatting human trafficking, efforts are underway to better understand labor trafficking in Ohio, to continue to prosecute traffickers and johns, and to build a system of services for the victims who are left broken by these traffickers and in need of restoration and healing. The paradigm shift in seeing human trafficking victims as victims and vigorously going after those who exploit them is having an impact that reaches beyond the criminal justice system to benefit the citizens of our state.

Author bio
Melinda Sykes Haggerty serves as the Director of Children’s Initiatives for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. In this role, she facilitates the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission and delivers training on human trafficking issues across Ohio. She lives in Columbus and is a graduate of the Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law.

1 U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 7 (2013).
2 Fed. Bureau of Investigation, Operation Cross Country: Recovering Victims of Child Sex Trafficking, July 29, 2013,
3 Polaris Project, Street Prostitution, (last visited Sept. 3, 2013).
4 22 U.S.C. §7102 (2000).
5 U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 381 (2013).
6 Ohio Att’y Gen. Office, Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission 2010 Year End Report 5 (2010).
7 Ohio Att’y Gen. Office, 2012 Domestic Sex Trafficking Report 2 (2012).
8 Ohio Att’y Gen. Office, 2012 Domestic Sex Trafficking Report 2 (2012).
9 Ohio Att’y Gen. Office, 2012 Domestic Sex Trafficking Report 4 (2012).
10 Taryn Mastrean, “Protected Innocence Initiative Part 2: Criminal Provisions Addressing Demand,” Shared Hope International, Nov. 5, 2011 (available at; Jake Grieco, “Human Trafficking Report Released,” The News Record, Jan. 27, 2013 (available at
11 Press Release, “U.S. Attorney’s Office Northern District of Ohio, Toledo Woman Charged with Human Trafficking” (Aug. 16, 2012) (available at
12 Press Release, “Attorney General DeWine Announces Formation of Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force; First Investigation Leads to Indictments, Arrests” (Oct. 4, 2012) (available at
13 Press Release, “Attorney General DeWine Announces Formation of Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force; First Investigation Leads to Indictments, Arrests” (Oct. 4, 2012) (available at
14 Press Release, “Attorney General DeWine, Prosecutor O’Brien Announce Human Trafficking Indictment” (Oct. 2, 2012) (available at 2012/Attorney-General-DeWine-Prosecutor-O-Brien-Announc).
15 R.C. §2905.32.
16 R.C. §2905.32(B).
17 R.C. §2905.32(E); Ohio Rev. Code § 2950.01.
18 R.C. §2921.32(C)(6).
19 R.C. §2152.021.
20 R.C. §2953.38.
21 R.C. §2307.51.
22 R.C. §109.73.
23 Ohio Att’y Gen. Office, Local Law Enforcement Human Trafficking Statistics 1 (2013).



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