OH: A new word for prostitute: Victim

Naive and vulnerable girls lured by slick-talking pimps are drugged, beaten and held hostage for sex. They are our children, and they are the latest casualties of human trafficking.

Sunday, June 28, 2009 3:29 AM
By Alan Johnson and Mike Wagner


The rusty black Chevrolet crept slowly down W. Broad Street until a stranger waved it to a stop. The man handed the driver $50 and climbed into the back seat beside a cute young woman with brown hair and brown eyes.

Before sunrise, about 20 more strangers would do the same.

Ashley Berner, barely 18, pleaded to the driver to let her go. Three other women, who had taken her in from the streets, introduced her to the man she didn’t realize was a pimp. Soon, he was beating her and threatening to kill her and harm her family if she didn’t continue prostituting in the back seat of that car.

Two weeks earlier, she had been sitting in English and math classes at Hilliard Darby High School. She left home after graduation to get out on her own, and the first people she met lured her astray.

And just that fast, Ashley was trapped in an ugly underworld with no clear escape.

“I wanted out,” she said. “But he told me they owned me now.”

The image of human trafficking is one of women being smuggled across foreign borders into sex rings, or of children being abducted from Third World countries and forced into slave labor.

But a form of this heinous crime — the sex trafficking of juveniles and young women — is happening here in our community with our children.

Pimps and their recruiters target girls in schools and shopping malls, on Internet sites and college campuses and elsewhere. They trick or coerce them into prostitution.

The U.S. Department of State estimates that 15,000 to 18,000 women and girls are trafficked in the U.S. each year. Up to 300,000 may be at risk because they live in poverty, have a family history of abuse or are vulnerable for other reasons.

Once the pimps or sex-ring operators have girls such as Ashley, they use whatever it takes to keep them under control — drugs, beatings and death threats.

Some force girls to work in strip clubs and escort services. Immigrants often are forced to become domestic servants and day laborers for low pay and no freedom. There is little data to measure trafficking in central Ohio. But one rescue group says it sees up to 21 cases a month.

A Dispatch examination of sex trafficking confirmed that it is a serious and growing threat, largely invisible and vastly underreported. The problem is not limited to the inner city. According to law enforcement, it extends to affluent suburbs where pimps are increasingly looking for unsuspecting and naive girls.

“If these girls don’t have good role models or a guiding force in their life, they are left wide open to this kind of activity,” said Eric Fenner, executive director of Franklin County Children Services. “These are smooth-talking people in most cases who have made coercing these young girls into a science. We need to recognize that these girls are victims.”

That viewpoint gets to the heart of why it is so difficult to size up the problem: Society generally views prostitutes as criminals, not victims. Quantifying the problem — and fighting it — begins with a new definition of underage prostitutes as crime victims, say their advocates.

“A 12-year-old girl doesn’t decide to be a prostitute on her own,” said Theresa Flores, an advocate and former trafficking victim. “They are coerced, tricked and forced into that world.”

Officials from the State Highway Patrol, Ohio attorney general’s office, Franklin County Children Services, FBI and advocates who try to rescue and treat trafficked girls say the problem is serious.

“I would say this is a strong threat,” said Kristin Cadieux, an FBI agent who investigates federal trafficking cases in the Columbus area. “There are serious things happening out there to young girls.”

Some recent examples:

• Cadieux investigated a case last year in which seven women, mainly ages 18 to 22, were taken to West Virginia to be sold for prostitution. The young women were passed off as 14- and 15-year-olds by the pimp and his female recruiter.

• Federal investigators in Maryland used Web-based sex ads this past spring to lure pimps who were buying, selling and prostituting young girls. Authorities in the area between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., made several arrests and took numerous girls into protective custody. Two of those girls were from Columbus. One was 17; the other, 12.

• A Columbus man faces charges for running a sex ring from his home after he arranged for a 16-year-old girl to have sex with an undercover detective. Authorities said the girl was recruited and used in nude pictures on the Internet to advertise prostitution. It’s unknown how many other girls were involved.

Toledo’s reputation as a haven for human trafficking prompted creation of an FBI-led task force focused exclusively on the problem. In Columbus, 50 agencies are part of the federally funded Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition.

Awareness of sex trafficking has been slow to spread, especially in suburban communities, where many who are aware of trafficking are hesitant to talk about it because they don’t want their communities or schools associated with the issue.

David Axner, superintendent of Dublin City Schools, made an exception this past spring by inviting Flores to speak to high-school girls.

Having heard Flores’ powerful story at a Rotary Club meeting, Axner said that his students should be told of the potential dangers.

“If I had not brought her to our district to raise awareness to this issue, I would not have been doing my job. It would have been irresponsible,” Axner said. “I didn’t want to sweep what I learned under the rug and hope it doesn’t happen to one of our kids.”

After Flores’ presentation at Dublin Coffman High School, some students approached at least one counselor and expressed concern about friends or other teens who they feared might be susceptible to trafficking.

“I think the potential for this has always been there and continues to be there,” said GeorgiAnn Diniaco, a counselor at Coffman. “It was a good opportunity for the girls to have a chance to be empowered rather than taken. What I’m hearing from them is they are now more aware of who surrounds them and the situations they put themselves in.”

Some high-ranking politicians have long viewed girls caught up in trafficking as victims.

Among them are Teresa Fedor and Deborah Pryce, who are from opposite sides of the political fence: Fedor is a Democratic state senator from Toledo, and Pryce is a Republican former judge and congresswoman from Upper Arlington.

In recent years, they independently arrived at the same conclusion: Human trafficking is “modern-day slavery,” and it’s happening in Ohio.

Fedor subsequently sponsored Ohio’s new human-trafficking law; Pryce led the charge to reauthorize and strengthen the federal trafficking law.

Experts say that Ohio is a prime Midwest “recruitment area” for young girls who are forced to work as prostitutes in hotels, truck stops and temporary “cat houses” at major sporting events.

“The recruiters in trafficking go to the very places where you think your kids are safe,” said Celia Williamson, a University of Toledo professor and founder of Second Chance, a group founded 16 years ago to get women and girls out of the sex business.

“They don’t go to the bus stations,” Williamson said. “They go to the mall. They go to the hangout house where there are all girls there. The recruiter could be another girl.”

The rush from crack cocaine was the only thing that seemed to revive Ashley’s weary body and broken spirit night after night on the streets. Her pimp got what he wanted — a drug addict who needed both him and prostitution to support her craving for crack. She traded the little money she kept from turning tricks for more drugs.

She had become like the other street girls she encountered. Many were teenagers, some very young . Most were coerced into prostitution because of a history of abuse or trouble at home. They were prey for other women who faked friendship just long enough to introduce them to a pimp.

And, like Ashley, they were passed or sold from pimp to pimp.

A 2007 report on human trafficking was critical of how Ohio law enforcement, the courts and the juvenile system deal with the issue. The state generally has “a lack of awareness, training, resources and policies,” said the RAND Corp. Report prepared for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police.

The report by the independent, nonprofit think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., singles out law enforcement and social-service providers.

“In Columbus, there is little identification of human-trafficking cases,” the report said. “There is no awareness of possible juvenile sex-trafficking victims in Columbus despite the broad consideration of the issue in Toledo.”

The report said that Franklin County’s juvenile-justice system “treats juveniles arrested for prostitution as offenders instead of victims. According to respondents, these cases are not treated as possible human-trafficking cases and are not investigated or prosecuted as such by federal law enforcement.”

Victim advocates agree, saying that more education is needed. They also call for a unit dedicated to pulling young girls out of those situations and arresting pimps. They argue that if sex trafficking were a higher priority for police, they would arrest more pimps and document the growing problem.

Columbus police officials say they know about the “hot-button issue.” Vice detectives working the streets typically carry a list of active prostitutes that included more than 800 women last year.

“It could be happening out there, and in some instances, I’m sure it is,” said Lt. Steve Hope, head of the Columbus vice unit. “But I wouldn’t say it’s rampant, based on what we have seen.”

Columbus Police Chief Walter Distelzweig said additional scrutiny is needed.

“Based on the increased concern from the FBI and others, it’s something we should take a harder look at,” he said.

He was just another man, just another trick for Ashley.

She had seen hundreds of men during the summer of 2008. Any attempt or even hint of running away prompted beating s and more threats. So with her pimp watching from nearby, she routinely offered men oral sex for $20.

But this particular guy wasn’t another john; he was an undercover Columbus cop. He arrested the teenager for solicitation and, without pity or coddling, booked her in to jail.

The police record lists Ashley’s address as “streets of Columbus.”

“I know I would be dead if he hadn’t arrested me that night,” Ashley said. “I was just a crack-addict hooker he was pulling in off the streets, not a victim. But that’s what gave me a chance to get my life back.”

On an uncharacteristically chilly June night, Sharon Amos and her band of volunteers prepare for their weekly visit to strip clubs on Dayton’s “Dixie Strip.”

The old stone building that is home to Oasis House seems out of place in an area that some say is riddled with the highest concentration of sex businesses in Ohio. Directly across the street is the Adult Superstore. A few blocks north is the Flamingo Show Club. To the south are Sharkey’s Lounge, the Harem, the Living Room and the Gentleman’s Club.

The five clubs employ about 400 dancers. Most perform topless, and a few take it all off.

Amos, pastor of Higher Ground United Methodist Church, heads to the Flamingo Show Club, where a sign outside advertises: “Amateur Night: $400 in prizes.”

Amos and a volunteer carry in trays of chicken-salad sandwiches, chips, strawberries, angel-food cake and brownies and spread them out on a table at the rear of the bar. Nearby, young women dance topless in front of mirrors and leering men. The women are bathed in neon and flashing lights, and gyrate to the sound of loud music with a deep, pulsing bass.

Within a few minutes, several scantily clad dancers perched on 6-inch heels gather around the food. Amos offers hugs to all, most of whom she knows by name.

She and the Oasis volunteers do not preach or push God in the clubs. Their goal is to help women escape stripping — considered by advocates as a form of human trafficking — and turn their lives around. Since Oasis House opened in late 2005, about a dozen women have taken the offer.

Remarkably, Oasis volunteers are not only welcomed but protected and encouraged by club managers, dancers, bartenders and bouncers.

“She’s a fascinating woman. I can think of several girls here at my club that they’ve helped out,” said Tim Walker, Flamingo manager. Walker said he doesn’t mind that Amos’ mission is to get women out of the business where he makes his living.

“A dancer’s career arc is pretty short,” he said. “Maybe it’s a good thing sometimes for them to leave.”

Amos’ ministry to strippers started when a dancer came to her church, also located on the Strip. For nine months, Amos and her volunteers mustered only enough courage to pull into the club parking lots during daytime hours, park their cars and pray.

“We were scared to death to start this ministry,” Amos said. But just before Christmas 2005, they took gift bags to the dancers.

“I knew we had to go to them,” Amos said. “They weren’t going to come to us. We were received very well.”

Most of the dancers at the Flamingo and other clubs are single moms who have health problems, addictions and felony records but no high-school diplomas. Few have transportation, and some are homeless.

Donna Cox, a licensed professional counselor on the Oasis staff, said most dancers are hooked up with boyfriends or pimps who force them to perform so they can bring home money each night.

On a good day, when customers are generous and “money rains,” as the dancers say, they can make up to $1,000. More often, they go home with just a few dollars and they can face punishment from their boyfriends or pimps.

“I see women beat up all the time,” Cox said. “I saw a woman so beat up I didn’t recognize her. She had the imprint of a man’s fist in her chest.”

Ashley awoke drenched in sweat, the image of her former pimp’s hardened face burned in her psyche. It had been seven months since a policeman pulled her from the grip of her captors.

But the nightmares still came in waves, even at a shelter that specializes in caring for battered young women. On this night, she couldn’t fall back asleep, so she wrote in her journal:

Dear Mom,

I’ve been feeling very scared lately. If he is to ever find me he would kill me, and that scares me. I’m trying the best I can to stay strong. I just feel so weak inside. I know I’m safe where I’m at and all, but I feel like he is right over me and breathing down my neck. I don’t like feeling this way, I hate it Mommy. I just need to hear your words of hope and love.


Karen Stauss, policy director for the Polaris Project, a national and international anti-trafficking organization, said Ohio’s new trafficking law, while well-intentioned, is so weak that Polaris doesn’t include it among the 40 states that have specific criminal provisions on the books.

Ohio law adds a trafficking specification, much like the one tacked on for commission of a crime involving a gun, when there are already two other felony charges. It has other restrictions.

“I don’t think there’s a state in the union that doesn’t have a serious problem. It’s a big, big business,” Stauss said.

The Salvation Army plays a vital role locally as the organizer of Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition. Columbus was the 21st city in the country to get funding for a coalition, because federal officials determined that central Ohio is “at risk” for trafficking. But the $20,000, eight-month federal grant is now gone and agencies are on their own in operating the coalition.

So far, the coalition has responded to seven trafficking cases with help for the victims, three of them in the last three months, said Michelle Hannan of the Salvation Army. However, coalition participants estimate they encounter 13 to 21 new cases each month, Hannan said.

Ohio’s law was a challenge to get through the legislature but needs to be strengthened, said Sen. Fedor.

“I was just horrified about this situation. … These victims are suffering in silence. They’re drugged, beaten, starved and in some cases even chained and locked up.

“It’s an invisible crime. … They’re selling our children and women and making huge profits.”

Williamson, the Toledo trafficking expert, describes Ohio’s law as “bare bones.”

“It was so difficult to get the law passed, it was ridiculous,” she said. “We had to keep taking things out to satisfy other people.”

Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland may have the same problems as Toledo, but “don’t have the law enforcement tools,” she said.

“If you go to Atlanta or other hot spots, that’s where you’re going to find our kids. … We’re a hub in the country.”

Williamson said Ohio trafficking victims are frequently moved to other states, mostly large cities.

While the illegal sex business involves more than just a trafficker and victim, the customer — that vital link in the business — remains in the shadows.

“From federal law on down to the street level, the customer always stays invisible. When you are purchasing sex with children, you’re not a customer, you’re a sexual predator,” she said.

Attorney General Richard Cordray has invited representatives from law enforcement, social-service agencies, the courts, trafficking experts and victim advocates to serve on a human-trafficking commission to be established under the new state law.

“We don’t really have a handle on the scope of the problem,” Cordray said. “One of the things we’ll look at will be how do we quantify, identify, give some parameters to the problem. There’s a lot that is not understood.”

“You see the problem and realize that could be my son, my daughter,” he said. “You do feel it at a personal level. They’re reaching into our communities.”

Gone is the girl in the senior-year photo with the rose – colored skin, innocent smile and ambitious eyes. What’s left is a pale, anguished woman with hardened eyes. Almost a year removed from life on the streets, Ashley’s body is fragile. But what remains of her spirit fends off the demons when her mind wanders to the past.

“I have flashbacks, awful flashbacks,” she said. “I’m trying hard to be normal again, to have a decent life.”

There is hope. She was accepted into college and plans to attend classes in the fall.

There is also despair. She has been in and out of mental – health facilities, briefly turned back to crack cocaine, and once attempted suicide .

And there is still fear. Constant, vivid thoughts haunt her — that somehow, some way, one of her former pimps might find her.

“No matter what people think of girls like me, no matter if they see us as victims or not,” she said , “there are more still out there that need help.”


Original at Columbus Dispatch

1 Comment

  1. It’s true and we need to alert our youth to the dangers that are so real. God bless you for your efforts to call attention to this terrible problem.

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