26 Apr 2012

Ohio to strengthen sex trafficking laws

Author: Matthew Thacker | Filed under: Enterprise Story, Spring 2012

By Matthew Thacker

State legislators in Ohio are attempting to strengthen state laws in an effort to end sex trafficking in the state.

Ohio state representative Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) has proposed new legislation in the Ohio General Assembly that would help distinguish victims of sex trafficking from those arrested for prostitution of their own free will.

Fedor’s Safe Harbor Act would also set provisions for sex trafficking awareness education, as well as making rehabilitative services more readily available to sex trafficking survivors.

Toledo, Ohio, is fourth in the nation for arrests for trafficking of youths for sex, and on March 29, Gov. John Kasich announced the creation of a 90-day task force to investigate the size and scope of the problem statewide.

Sex trafficking (as defined by the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000) occurs any time a sex act for pay is induced by force, fraud, or coercion. It also applies automatically if the person who performs the sex act is under the age of 18.

Since 2005, Fedor has been leading the charge for tougher sex trafficking laws in Ohio, and in 2010 her first anti-trafficking bill made sex trafficking a stand-alone felony in Ohio—the first such law in the state.

Fedor said that she initially became aware of the scope of the sex trafficking problem in Northwest Ohio after a 2005 bust of a sex trafficking ring in Harrisburg, Pa, identified 151 sex trafficking victims, almost half of which were from Toledo.

“That broke my heart,” Fedor said. She said that is when she decided that Ohio’s trafficking laws needed to be tougher.

“Most people think that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world. No, it’s the oldest oppression in the world,” Fedor said. “I am going to do everything in my power to end this.”

University of Toledo professor Celia Williamson is a leading expert in the study of prostitution and sex trafficking and founder of the Toledo-based victim help group Second Chance.

Williamson said that people have the misconception that underage girls are abducted into trafficking, but that that accounts for only 5 percent of sex trafficking cases. Williamson explained that in most cases the victims are blackmailed, extorted or otherwise intimidated into victimization.

Williamson said that in some cases teenage girls are “baited” by boys their own age. This may happen when a teenage girl goes on a seemingly innocent date with a boy only to be slipped a date-rape drug.

The boy then photographs the unconscious girl in compromising poses and later uses the pictures to extort her. She is told to sell sex for him, or risk having the pictures posted online and sent to loved ones.

Once a girl has been blackmailed into sexual slavery it is very hard for her to regain her freedom, Williamson said.

“They are afraid that this [trafficker] is going to beat them or go to their family’s home and burn it down, or that they’re going to go kidnap her sister and force her to do what she refuses to do,” Williamson said.

Sex trafficking is the most prevalent form of trafficking in Northwest Ohio, but it is still only a part of the overall international human trafficking pandemic.     Internationally, many times, human trafficking is not for the purpose of sex but for manual labor.

University of Toledo School of Law Assistant Professor Shelley Cavalieri worked with human trafficking victims in Italy. She said that international trafficking often begins as indentured servitude.

Cavalieri recently gave an informal lecture at the law school about how international traffickers often buy their victims’ way out of debt in severely impoverished regions, then transport them to foreign countries where they are forced to work for several years to pay off their debt.

Celia Williamson said that traffickers use these methods because of the higher risk associated with abducting girls outright. “Often, it’s more that they engage in a long process of manipulation,” Williamson said.

That’s what happened to Holly Austin Smith in the summer of 1992.

At age 14, Smith exchanged telephone numbers with a guy at a local mall that she said appeared to be in in his early 20s. The two began talking on the phone every night. Smith said that she realizes now that he was only trying to earn her trust.

“He said he knew rich and famous people, and traveled around the country going to clubs,” Smith said. “He gave me the impression that if I ran away with him, he could help me attain all the dreams that I had, like becoming rich and famous, to become a songwriter, and being in a band.”

Smith agreed to run away with him and met him at the same mall where they had met two weeks earlier. Smith said that the man seemed different than he had been on the phone—and it turned out that he was.

Sex trafficking survivor Holly Austin Smith. Photo used by permission.

Smith said she found out last year, when she received the police reports of her case, that the man she had been speaking with on the phone was actually a different person, who was more skilled at verbal coercion, than the one she had met in person.

Smith was taken from her hometown in New Jersey to a motel in Atlantic City and turned over to a woman, which helped her dress and dyed her hair.

“They didn’t ask me how I felt about anything. They didn’t ask me if I was willing to do this. They just told me what I was going to do,” Smith said. “And they never said the word ‘prostitution,’ but from what they were saying, I figured out that that was what they were expecting me to do.”

Smith said that night she was forced to have sex for money for her captors. Her first client was an older man who told Smith that she reminded him of his granddaughter.

After working through the night, Smith was awoken the next day by her trafficker raping her. She said that she begged him to stop and he said that he had to test her out.

Smith was arrested the next night because a police officer suspected her of being underage. Though she was a minor, Smith said she was not initially treated as a victim of sex trafficking, but rather as an underage prostitute.

She recalled that when the police returned her to her parents, she was still wearing the clothes that her traffickers had forced her to wear.

Smith said that her trafficker, who had raped her and forced her into underage prostitution, served 365 days in jail for his crimes. Another trafficker in Smith’s case fled from arrest and is still a fugitive in the state of New Jersey today.

After returning home, Smith said she felt victimized a second time as her parents blamed her for running away into the arms of her tormentor.

Rumors spread around her school that she was a prostitute, and she was sent away to live with an aunt and attend a school for troubled kids, Smith said.

In her adult life, Smith has become an advocate for trafficking survivors, and has given written testimony about human trafficking to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

Smith said laws like the one proposed by Fedor in Ohio are essential to getting victims the services they need.

“Safe Harbor Laws are crucial in every state if we are to protect our children from further trauma,” Smith said. “Child victims of sex trafficking need not to be arrested; They need safe housing and specialized counseling to address the myriad of complicated issues surrounding victimization by sex trafficking.”

Pete Swartz has seen those complicated issues firsthand. Detective Swartz is a 20-year veteran of the Toledo Police Department, and now works with the FBI’s Innocence Lost task force, which works specifically on sex trafficking cases.

Swartz said that in his five years on the taskforce, they have come across over 90 minors involved in sex trafficking.

Swartz explained that, if possible, the task force will try to get the sex traffickers prosecuted in the federal court system, where the minimum mandatory sentence for sex trafficking is 15 years, as opposed to the state’s 10-year minimum.

Swartz, however, expressed some concerns that Rep. Fedor’s Safe Harbor law may, in some instances, hinder the police’s ability to arrest underage prostitutes, which are working of their own free will, without a pimp.

“Some of the victims we deal with are sad stories,” Swartz said. “They’re bad, really bad. But other times, you have a victim who has been trafficked once, and then you come across her again with another pimp.”

Swartz said that every sex trafficking case is unique, and that is what makes sex traffickers, as well as victims, hard to generalize into one broad category.

But Teresa Fedor has said that sex trafficking laws in Ohio must be strengthened because trafficking has become an epidemic in the state.

“It’s time we start listening to victims, and imprison those who exploit, use and profit from human slavery,” Fedor said. “I believe it is the human rights issue of our time.”

Total Number of Ohio Youths Estimated to be At-Risk and Trafficked


Number of Ohio Youths

% of Total Ohio Youths

Total Number of Ohio Youth Ages 12-17



Estimate of the Total At-Risk Youths in Ohio



Estimate of Total Youth Who Will Be Trafficked in Ohio



*Data from the “Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission Research and Analysis Sub-Committee

Report on the Prevalence of Human Trafficking in Ohio” (2009)


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4 thoughts on “Ohio to strengthen sex trafficking laws

  1. Danae King Says:

    Awesome story. It is very well-sourced and well-written, you did a great job!

  2. Tara Keller Says:

    Hey Matt, that was a really great story. Your sources were right on and the reporting was flawless. Amazing job.

  3. Alexander Alusheff Says:

    Great story. It shows that you put a lot of hard work, time an effort into reporting on this story! Great sourcing!

  4. Jim Edwards Says:

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