In the insidious – but very often ignored – crime that is human trafficking, children are the most vulnerable. According to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children, there are more than 2,100 children reported missing every day in America.
Add to that statistic the fact that 1 in 6 runaways is likely to become a victim of sex trafficking, and what you have is a crisis that has preoccupied Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine for many years.
“We want to get to these kids before the traffickers do,” said DeWine, who became Ohio’s chief law-enforcement officer in 2011. “It is my hope that … local law enforcement will then reach out to these children and intervene in their lives before a trafficker can. Sometimes that’s all these kids really need – someone to take the time to listen and to care and to protect them.”
DeWine, a former county prosecutor, made those comments Monday during a meeting of the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission in Columbus.
DeWine, a former U.S. senator and representative, lieutenant governor and state legislator, has been unyielding in his campaign to rid the state of modern-day slave traders.
“Human traffickers exist in Ohio – that’s a hard thing for people to realize,” he said. “We just know that there are certain populations that are particularly vulnerable.”
The commission meeting focused on the most important population – children.
The goal of the latest initiative is to study the data to determine how “we can at least get some indication that someone might be trafficked,” DeWine said.
The state already collects information through the Ohio Missing Children Clearinghouse about at-risk youth. Analysts in the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Missing Persons Unit plan to further examine the information, social media and other databases to identify indicators of children at risk of or already being trafficked.
Local law enforcement
State investigators will then contact local law enforcement and provide assistance to protect the children.
The Mahoning Valley is well positioned to join forces with the attorney general’s office. Last September, DeWine and Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Greene announced formation of an Ohio Organized Crime Investigation Task Force to combat human trafficking in this region.
Maj. Jeff Allen of the sheriff’s department was tapped to lead the task force, which includes representatives from the county’s prosecutor’s office and Children Services Board, the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Ohio State Highway Patrol, the Adult Parole Authority and the Austintown and Liberty police departments.
“There is an important need for this task force because human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises right now,” Allen said at last year’s announcement. “I am pleased with how many area agencies have committed manpower to such an important initiative.”
We have long supported the aggressive campaign first launched by former Attorney General Richard Cordray and now led by DeWine. To us, human traffickers are no better than terrorists because they feed on society’s most vulnerable and defenseless.
By preying on children who through no fault of their own have fallen by the wayside, these slave traders deserve to be viewed as Public Enemy No. 1.
DeWine is to be commended for keeping this issue on the front burner.
In Ohio, more than 1,000 children are exploited and forced into the commercial sex trade, with an additional 3,000 runaways at risk of being trafficked yearly, according to the office of Gov. John R. Kasich, who has also made stopping human trafficking a top priority.
Last year, law enforcement agencies in Ohio investigated 135 human trafficking incidents, arresting 78 perpetrators and convicting 28 of those. Investigators also identified 151 potential victims, 170 suspected traffickers and 102 people who were identified as potential customers of the sex trade.
But DeWine is not convinced that those numbers tell the full story.
“We still think this is a grossly under-reported crime,” he said. “We still think there’s a lot of kids out there who are being trafficked in one form or another, and we’re not getting reports of it …”