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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: Misinformation Mainstreamed

Three adults and a child at a save the children walk in Lima, Ohio. They hold signs that say "save the children" and "Why are pedophiles more protected than me?"
Amanda Wilson
People gather at a save the children walk in Lima, Ohio in August 2020. The QAnon movement has co-opted the save the children hashtag and spread conspiracy theories about human trafficking. But anti-trafficking nonprofits and government organizations in Ohio also have a problem with sharing misinformation.

Anti-human trafficking nonprofits and government agencies, including those in Ohio, have a problem with sharing misinformation.

A warning, this story includes descriptions of sexual violence.

It’s not hard to find people on the internet who are really worried about trafficking. There are the hoaxes about zip ties on cars used to trap people in parking lots. Then there is the false conspiracy that Wayfair furniture listings are secretly ads for child trafficking victims. The QAnon movement and others have promoted conspiracy theories about a global child sex trafficking ring.

To be clear, human trafficking does happen, but there is very little comprehensive data about how common it is in the U.S. In the absence of facts, unfounded theories have popped up on social media feeds instead. But even anti-trafficking nonprofits and government agencies have a problem with sharing misinformation, including some in Ohio.

“Unfortunately, we as a movement had been feeding so many of these myths already that we had already put out a welcome mat for the QAnon framing,” said Bridgette Carr, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. “I think there's no signs that we're cracking down on some of our narratives.”

Is Ohio Really One Of The Worst States For Trafficking?

The claim that Ohio has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the country is regularly mentioned in news coverage.

State Representative Jena Powell recently said that “Ohio is the fourth worst state in the United States for human trafficking,” in an Instagram video filmed in Ohio’s statehouse.

It has also made its way onto Attorney General Dave Yost’s website, the Ohio Department of Health’s website, and an executive order signed by Governor Mike DeWine.

But the reality is we do not have that kind information, Carr said.

“We don't know the details of prevalence in the United States, in any state, in any city, in any community. Many communities will make a claim that they are the top ten for child sex trafficking, or in the top ten corridor for victims coming through or have the most sex trafficking in the nation,” she said. “They're not based on fact.”

Where, then, is that statistic about Ohio coming from? In 2019, Ohio did have the fifth most human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. But experts say that does not mean Ohio has the fifth highest rate of human trafficking.

For one thing, Ohio has a big population, the seventh largest in the country. More calls might simply reflect that the state has more people to make calls. Plus, the hotline does not verify the accuracy of the reports.

But What About All The Highways In Ohio?

Another prevalent Ohio-specific narrative is the idea that the state has high rates of human trafficking because of its many highways. It has been repeated in a variety of trainings from state-affiliated anti-human trafficking groups, including a presentation at Attorney General Dave Yost’s 2021 Human Trafficking Summit.

Celia Williamson, a distinguished professor of social work at the University of Toledo who researches human trafficking, has a simple response to this claim: it’s B.S.

“If anybody spends two seconds thinking about it, they're like, well, wait a minute, there are highways in almost every city. So what is unique about our special highways?” she said. “It's an easy way for people to explain trafficking. But, I'm sorry, we have to go a little bit more complex and a little deeper than just because a highway exists.”

This kind of claim can perpetuate the false idea that trafficking requires someone to be transported or smuggled to a new location. It also plays into the myth that trafficking often involves abductions by strangers in white vans, for example.

In reality, most traffickers know their victims. People with certain vulnerabilities are more likely to be trafficked, including people in poverty and people who have substance use disorder. People who have had contact with the criminal justice system, people of color, immigrants and the LGBTQ community are also at higher risk.

“If I could do one thing, that would be to stop people from saying anybody can be trafficked,” she said. “Because, yes, I can be hit by lightning, anybody can be hit by lightning. But if it's raining and I'm standing on a piece of metal, holding a piece of metal in my hand, I'm at higher risk of being struck by lightning.”

A crowd of people marches at a save the children walk in Lima, Ohio. The woman in the center of the photo holds a sign that says: Save the Children, 800,000 children go missing every year! $150 billion dollar business per year. Only 1% are found #stopchildsextrafficking. Misleading and false statistics about human trafficking, like the ones on this poster, are prevalent online.
Amanda Wilson
Misleading and false statistics about human trafficking, like the ones on this poster, are prevalent online. Even anti-trafficking nonprofits and governmental groups in Ohio repeat misleading statistics and unfounded claims.

What's At Stake When Ohioans Spread Misinformation?

If Ohioans continue to mischaracterize the problem of human trafficking, Williamson said she thinks the state will repeat the mistakes it has made in the past, leaving behind people who are most vulnerable in favor of people who have more protective factors and less risk factors.

Someone who had several of these risk factors starting in her teen years is Alizabeth Watkins. She is 28 and works at a Bob Evans in southern Ohio. She started using drugs around 14 and had a criminal record by the time she was 20. She became addicted to heroin and began selling sex to pay for it. Then she met a man in a hotel room in Columbus who groomed her, she said, giving her false promises of a better future.

“He gave me dope and he gave me money and he shortly became my first pimp,” she said. “I went with him, it was not something that was forced, but I went with him because that's where the drugs and money was.”

She went with him willingly to Detroit, but she said over time she found herself under his control. She said he determined what she wore, when she could sleep and took all of the money she made selling sex. She was raped and beaten and she feared he would hurt her if she tried to leave, she said.

Then, police raided a hotel room she was in, she said. They let her leave, she said, but did not ask if she was being trafficked or offer her help. Other women she was with at the hotel were arrested because they had warrants, she said. She came back to Columbus, where she was arrested over and over on solicitation charges. She does not remember law enforcement asking her if she had been forced to do sex work against her will.

“I was in and out of jail for years. Nobody offered to help me. Nobody offered me resources,” she said. “We need more people there when people go to get released or go in front of their judge to offer them help, because I was thrown in and out of the system forever and never was offered help.”

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.

The last time she was arrested, over two years ago, she said her probation officer helped her get into treatment. She now lives in a sober living house and has close relationships with her housemates and family. But she said she is still dealing with about $7,000 in court fines and is having trouble getting a driver’s license.

Carr said this is why those false narratives have real consequences.

“If we say that the narrative about who a trafficking victim is is someone who has been snatched from a parking lot. And then when law enforcement busts into the bedroom, where they've been held tied to the bed, they're elated that law enforcement is rescuing them,” Carr said. “If that's what a true victim looks like, then my clients, who have relationships with their perpetrators … they are not viewed as victims.”

Instead, often her clients are viewed as criminals, arrested for prostitution or deported if they are foreign nationals. When anti-trafficking groups perpetuate these myths, she said, it ends up harming actual victims.

This is the second story in our series Trafficked about human trafficking in Ohio. Tune in to WYSO next Wednesday to hear about one approach the state is taking to combat human trafficking: arresting people for selling sex.

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.