Trafficked: The View From The Street
Part of Ohio’s approach to combatting human trafficking is arresting people for selling sex. But some experts argue that arrests make people more vulnerable to being trafficked.
After sundown, Esther Flores drove around Columbus in her red van, nicknamed the Love Bug. A bandana covered the top of her curly head of hair and her mask was decorated with the word love.
Flores is the founder of the nonprofit 1DivineLine2Health. Part of the group’s work is providing food, clothes, condoms and Narcan to women selling sex on the streets of Columbus. She pulled over into an alley when she spotted a woman she has known for two or three years. The woman had recently managed to stay off the streets for six months, but now she was back.
“I wasn't trying to come back out here, period, but I didn't know nothing else,” she said.
The woman had ordered her social security card and birth certificate and wanted to find a job. But now she was living out of a car. Flores started showing her clothes in the back of the van. Soon the woman began to cry.
“I don't want you to cry, you’re going to make me cry,” Flores told her. “You are a fighter. You are one of the bravest women out here.”
Before Flores left the woman with food and some warm clothes, she made plans to help her get into substance abuse treatment. She believes in meeting women where they are at by providing them with their basic needs. By building relationships with women, she is then a resource when someone wants to get into recovery or get access to healthcare. Getting arrested is not what these women need, Flores said.
“Most of our girls have drug paraphernalia, soliciting, loitering, petty theft,” she said. “So you have a crime record, how can you get a decent place to work? How can you obtain a decent place to live?”
In Ohio, when police arrest people for selling sex, it is sometimes described publicly as an anti-human trafficking effort. But sex work and sex trafficking are not the same. In sex trafficking, someone has to be compelled to engage in commercial sex by force, fraud or coercion, or be under the age of 18.
But some groups in the state use the terms almost interchangeably. In January, the Ohio Attorney General’s office put out a press release claiming that eight women were rescued in a human trafficking sting.
But according to police, only two of the women were even suspected of being trafficked. They arrested all eight women. In this case rescued meant arrested and charged with prostitution.
Since 2020, the Ohio Attorney General’s office has claimed that more than 100 victims of human trafficking were rescued through sting operations. When contacted for this story, the office was unable to provide information about how many of the rescued victims were arrested and charged with prostitution. It also did not provide evidence that any of the human trafficking stings it was involved with since 2020 resulted in human trafficking charges.
“I usually show a couple of pictures when I do a presentation of what rescue looks like," said Celia Williamson, a distinguished professor of social work at the University of Toledo who researches human trafficking. "I show a dog being rescued out of a fire. I show a hand going into the water to rescue somebody who's drowning. And then I show a picture of a kid, a 16-year-old sitting on a bed with handcuffs. One of these things is not like the other, like Sesame Street. We keep calling it rescue, but it looks like arrest. And arrest is what happens when you've done something wrong.”
For people selling sex on the streets, whether they have been trafficked or not, she said they do not deserve to be criminalized. Instead, they need services, she said.
But Attorney General Dave Yost said arresting survivors is a way to get them access to those services.
“Having the oversight of the court with the carrot and the stick of services and potential jail time is just indispensable to helping them get to the point where their brain can rewire, develop new habits and have a chance at sustained sobriety,” Yost said.
He said he understands the argument that victims of human trafficking should not be arrested.
“But I've also seen work in places like the CATCH Court here in Columbus, and they rely upon the potential of jail time hanging over the head of the survivor to help keep her focused,” he said.
CATCH Court in Franklin County is one of Ohio’s specialized court programs for victims of human trafficking. Participants receive mental health and substance abuse treatment and can end up serving less jail time.
But only 72 people have finished the program since it started in 2009. One analysis of data from 2012 to 2017 found that 90% of those accepted into the program were white, according to information provided by former CATCH Court coordinator Hannah Estabrook. Only four other counties in Ohio even have these programs.
Yost said he knows human trafficking and prostitution are two different things.
“At the end of the day, though, I have no problem classifying prostitution charges within the rubric of human trafficking because they become one and the same,” he said.
But what might seem like a semantic difference has actual consequences, according to Bridgette Carr, the director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
“Every time we claim we're doing a human trafficking sting when really we just arrested a bunch of folks for prostitution, we're making labor trafficking invisible and we're also not actually caring about sex trafficking,” she said.
Arresting people doing sex work by choice makes them more vulnerable and can help traffickers who want to identify vulnerable people, she said. Plus, she does not agree with the notion that arrests are the way we should be giving people services.
“This idea that you have to be arrested to get access to these services was created by us. It's not set in stone. It wasn't part of what happened when the earth was formed,” she said. “This was created by us as a community. We decide how folks access these services.”
At a drop-in center Flores opened this year in the Hilltop area of Columbus, she rounded up women for a hot meal from the front porch. There was chicken and vegetable soup and cupcakes donated by a local bakery. One woman was bundled up in a red Buckeyes scarf while smoking a cigarette. She told Flores, speaking from experience, getting arrested for prostitution does not help.
“It makes the situation even worse because now, where we were able to take care of ourselves, now we out here starving because we can't even take care of ourselves,” she said. “So why put us in a worse situation?”
“Incarceration is not, is not, is not rehabilitation for this population that we're working with,” Flores said. “They need to have a choice. They need to have a place where they can feel comfortable, talk, cry, get mad, anger. And when they're ready, we can take them to a place.”
The woman finished her cigarette and a few others got ready to leave. They headed to the parking lot behind the drop in center, and Flores got back behind the wheel of the Love Bug to take them back to where they needed to go on the street.
This is the third story in WYSO’s series Trafficked about human trafficking in Ohio. Tune in to 91.3 or go to wyso.org next Wednesday for the final piece in the series. Hear about how labor trafficking often gets left out of the conversation.
Chloe Murdock contributed research to this story.