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In Trafficked, the new investigative series from WYSO, reporter Leila Goldstein digs deep into what’s really known about human trafficking in Ohio, and what’s at stake when people mischaracterize the problem.

Trafficked: Alizabeth’s Story

Alizabeth Watkins identifies as a human trafficking survivor, a word she has tattooed above her heart. She is in portrait, with curly blonde hair and a black shirt.
Leila Goldstein
Alizabeth Watkins identifies as a human trafficking survivor, a word she has tattooed above her heart. She lives in a sober living house in southern Ohio.

Ohio leaders have made human trafficking a priority. But what do we really know about how trafficking happens in the state? In the first part of WYSO’s series Trafficked, hear the story of one survivor and the challenges she is still up against.

A warning, this story includes descriptions of sexual violence.

In the basement of a sober living house in southern Ohio, Alizabeth Watkins’ bedroom is a reflection of herself. There's a mirror decorated with stickers from her job at Bob Evans, the flat screen TV she bought herself in front of her bed and a wall of photos of her loved ones.

Watkins is 28 and has been sober for over two years. She identifies as a sex trafficking survivor, a word she has tattooed above her heart. Human trafficking is a form of exploitation where a person is made to do some form of labor or sex work through force, fraud or coercion. Anyone under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex is also considered a victim of sex trafficking.

Watkins’ story of being trafficked begins with her story of addiction. She started smoking marijuana and drinking at about 13. Around 15 she started using heroin.

“My habit became extreme,” she said. “If I didn't have it, I was having seizures because I was so sick.”

She needed a way to come up with money. She had seen how much other women and girls were able to make selling sex.

“I did what I had to do. I ran into a guy. He offered me money for sexual activities,” she said. “Then I realized how fast I could get money.”

She started posting ads on the website Backpage to sell sex. And then she said, she met a man in a hotel room in Columbus.

“It was fun at first and he was cool to hang out with. He was chill. He was fun. He was giving me all the drugs to get high on. He built my trust,” she said. “He made me feel safe and stuff like that.”

He promised her a better life with more money and easier access to drugs if she went to Detroit with him, she said. And when she got there, that’s where her story started to change. Over time, she said she went from doing sex work for drug money to no longer having control over her own life.

“That's when I learned what getting raped was. That's when I learned what really having nobody was in my life … Men were beating me up in hotel rooms,” she said. “And this guy, if I would have tried to leave, he would have hurt me. He claimed me. I was his.”

Then, she said, one day police raided a hotel room she was in. She said she was not offered any help. But because she did not have any warrants, she said the police let her go, and she came back to Columbus.

She started selling sex on Sullivant Avenue. She was in and out of jail, charged with soliciting and loitering. She said she often overdosed the day she left jail. But, after years of not getting the support she needed, she said she got assigned a probation officer who changed her life.

“They offered me rehab for the first time,” she said. “I ran with it because that's all I wanted for years was guidance, to get someone to guide me in the right direction. That's all I needed.”

Now that she is sober, she is able to spend time with her niece and nephew and has loving relationships with her housemates. She is also mentoring a young man in recovery.

But the challenges are still mounting. Aside from dealing with the trauma of her experiences, she also has financial and legal problems. Her criminal record and fines, which she said are about $7,000, have made it difficult for her to advance in her job or get a driver’s license.

Watkins does not know the legal name of the accused perpetrator and WYSO was unable to reach him for comment on this story. WYSO reviewed social media posts, court documents and a contemporaneous account to verify the events included in this story.

Alizabeth Watkins with her friend at a church event where she shared her story.
Leila Goldstein/WYSO
Alizabeth Watkins with her friend at a church event where she shared her story.

What Experts Do (And Don't) Know About Human Trafficking

Ohio leaders have put a growing focus on the issue of human trafficking. In January, Governor Mike DeWine expanded Ohio’s Human Trafficking Task Force. Attorney General Dave Yost has held summits focused on the issue. The state has received millions of dollars in federal funding to combat the problem.

At the same time, misinformation on trafficking has exploded online. While viral conspiracy theories could have you believing traffickers are people who jump out of bushes, Watkins’ story reflects a lot of what experts know about how sex trafficking can happen.

“What really happens is, much like all sexual violence, it’s an example of grooming,” said Megan Garrison, the sexual assault program educator at YWCA Dayton. “It’s someone you trust, someone you know and it happens over a long period of time before you're just in so deep that you cannot get out of it anymore.”

Traffickers usually know their victims. They target those with vulnerabilities, including people with histories of abuse, substance use issues, or contact with the foster care or criminal justice systems. People of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants and people living in poverty are also more vulnerable. While you may have seen posters about trafficking with images of chains or ropes, traffickers often use coercion or fraud to exploit their victims.

“Coercion is basically manipulating someone into thinking that that's their only option,” Garrison said. “It doesn't necessarily mean by violence or physical means.”

But there is still a lot even experts do not know about trafficking in the state. For instance, how common is human trafficking in Ohio?

“We really don't have really good, accurate, reliable estimates yet,” said Valerie Anderson, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati. “Anyone that gives you some hard and fast statistics about prevalence of human trafficking, whether it's here in Ohio or anywhere in the country or around the world, I would tell anyone to take that with a grain of salt and be skeptical of that.”

Anderson has worked to nail down some of those numbers. She conducted a study identifying known victims of sex trafficking in youth and young adults in Ohio. For data mostly from 2014 to 2016, they found around 1000 cases, an estimate she said is likely conservative.

But, while she said the study provides a foundation for understanding prevalence, researchers are dealing with agencies using different definitions, a lack of reporting and reporting bias. Even agencies who can identify victims may have misconceptions of what a victim of human trafficking looks like. When Watkins was in and out of jail, for example, she said she does not remember being asked if she was trafficked.

“I know there's definitely a lot of people who misunderstand it and don't understand it,” she said. “But I think that's why I need to tell my story, so that people do get a better understanding on it.”

She knows her past does not define her. At the same time, there are a lot of hurdles ahead of her because of her past. She wants employers and service providers to get educated and see the humanity in survivors like her.

This is the first story in WYSO’s series Trafficked about human trafficking in Ohio. Next Wednesday, tune in to WYSO or go to wyso.org for the second part of the series. Learn about the misinformation circulating in the state, even among government agencies. What’s at stake when we mischaracterize the problem?

While working at the station Leila Goldstein has covered the economic effects of grocery cooperatives, police reform efforts in Dayton and the local impact of the coronavirus pandemic on hiring trends, telehealth and public parks. She also reported Trafficked, a four part series on misinformation and human trafficking in Ohio.