MARION – Human trafficking is a global issue, and two Ohio State University at Marion students offered tips during a Wednesday presentation on recognizing it if it is encountered locally.
Emily Christman and Carolyn Morris, students in the social work program, planned the event as part of a required advocacy project and drew an audience of 30 students and local nurses.
“(We picked this topic) because we have a passion for human trafficking and we knew our resources worked out well together,” Morris said.
The keynote speaker at the event was Nora Flanagan, Sexual Assault Response Network coordinator at HelpLine of Delaware and Morrow Counties. She also is a family friend to Morris.
Flanagan discussed sexual assault and how it can play into some forms of human trafficking, particularly those focused on providing sexual services for pay. She said sexual assault and sex trafficking are both traumatic crimes involving power, control and abuse as one person exploits others.
Both crimes can happen to anyone regardless of sex or age, according to her presentation, and neither one has “a single perpetrator or victim profile.”
“I think when people hear ‘human trafficking’ they automatically go to the sex trafficking, so labor trafficking’s overlooked,” Flanagan said.
She and other HelpLine staff members work with a Delaware County coalition against human trafficking to raise awareness of both forms and support victims.
The coalition helped sex trafficking victims after a January 2015 case in which at least 18 women were reportedly forced to live in massage parlors and provide sexual services, according to the coalition website and the Columbus Dispatch.
State and federal investigators said the Columbus, Powell and Worthington businesses were a front for prostitution led by sisters Qing and Estella Xu, who recruited other foreign nationals who spoke little to no English and then forced them to work. In October, the two were sentenced to 10 years in prison for promoting prostitution, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, money laundering and practicing medicine without a license.
While it was labor rather than sex trafficking, Marion County also saw a high-profile case related to human trafficking. In December 2014, federal officials and local law enforcement raided a New Bloomington trailer park at dawn, removing dozens of Guatemalan nationals who’d been brought into the U.S. and held for forced agricultural labor.
The details of the operation were not fully released until last summer, when a federal grand jury returned an indictment against the ringleaders. The four leaders who were charged together have been convicted in federal court, as have two drivers connected to them.
Brande Urban, a leader in the coalition and the Delaware County United Way, said those are the two most-known recent cases in central Ohio. While the trials reached the public eye, Flanagan said many cases go relatively unnoticed because they involve individuals rather than organized rings.
The cases she usually sees are similar to abusive intimate relationships, with the offenders making the victims dependent on them emotionally and cutting others out of their lives. She said sometimes an offender will deliberately start a relationship with trafficking as a goal.
It’s hard to spot signs of human trafficking in strangers, Flanagan said, but victims encountered frequently may be easier to identify.
“For labor trafficking, a lot of times you see people (in a house) but you don’t see them coming and going,” she said.
That was similar to what other residents of the New Bloomington trailer park said about the trafficking victims there: that they kept to themselves and didn’t come out except to buy food and go to work.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office collects statewide law enforcement reports related to human trafficking, and in 2015, it identified 203 possible victims and 130 suspected traffickers. Only six of the possible victims and one suspected trafficker were connected to labor trafficking rather than sex trafficking.
Females made up 98.5 percent of potential victims whose sex was identified in the data, while men made up 73.3 percent of suspected traffickers whose sex was identified. Of the potential victims whose age was listed in the data, 30.8 percent were minors.