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Child Trafficking Advocates: Victims Are not Criminals

February 20, 2012

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Human trafficking is not only a popular story line on police dramas on television; it also is a growing crime in Ohio as well as around the world. An estimated 1,000 children in Ohio are at risk of being forced into the sex trade each year, and law enforcement experts say the Internet is compounding the problem.

Theresa Flores of Columbus was trafficked out of her own home at age 15. After two years, she says, her family moved and she was able to escape. Now, she works to help other survivors, who she says are often blamed for what has happened to them.

"These kids go through horrors you can't even imagine. I mean, having to have sex with 10 to 15 strangers every night; nobody chooses to do that. And we've mislabeled it 'teen prostitution,' putting the blame on these kids."

Flores says more needs to be done to get survivors the help they need and to prevent others from becoming victims.

Crystal Ward Allen heads the Public Children's Services Association of Ohio, and says they're working to educate those who work in child welfare, juvenile justice and law enforcement about the problem of human trafficking. She says it's crucial to raise awareness, so survivors receive the proper care.

"Not only do we want to make sure that these young girls, primarily, are treated as victims, we also want to coordinate our efforts with law enforcement, because it is very critical that we prosecute the criminal."

While many victims are runaways, children who have been abused or are in the juvenile-justice system, Theresa Flores says that's just part of the problem. She says youth from any neighborhood can be trafficked.

"Middle-class suburban kids that come from even a two-parent family, and have this older boyfriend that is just telling them everything they want to hear, saying, 'If you love me you'll do this,' or threatens them or blackmails them, and so it was in my case."

Flores is a founder of Gracehaven House, a shelter for child sex-trafficking victims. She also created a campaign called "SOAP" - Saving Our Adolescents from Prostitution - to bring awareness of the problem to hotel owners and managers.

Ohio Governor John Kasich recently declared what he calls 'a war on the slave trade business' in the state and a new measure, House Bill 262, would help protect victims of trafficking from prosecution.

Statistics are at www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH