Dr. Jeffery Barrows
When Theresa Flores was 15 years old, she lived in an upper-class neighborhood in Birmingham, Mich. Her dad was an executive with a large company. She had a crush on a boy at her school, and like any other teenage girl, she accepted a ride home from school with when he offered. The ride home with that teenage boy would be the start of two years of sex trafficking for Flores.
Flores shared her story at a STOP Human Trafficking Forum Saturday.
Sponsored by the Zonta Club of Columbus, a service organization dedicated to improving and advancing the status of women, the forum was aimed at education and awareness about human trafficking in central Ohio.
Most human trafficking in the U.S. is related to workers who are here illegally and held as virtual slaves.
Toledo is the second largest area in the country for human trafficking, said Sgt. Toby Wagner of the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Criminal Intelligence Unit, citing numerous explanations.
Ohio has a lot of farmland, which leads to easier forced migrant labor. Toledo is not far from Detroit, known for its high crime rate. And Ohio also has many major highways running in all directions, making it easy for victims to be trafficked into other states.
“We didn’t know how deep it runs and how rampant it runs,” Wagner said. “If you think it’s not in your backyard, you’re fooling yourself. Every state in the union is affected by this crime.”
Wagner said the Ohio State Highway Patrol has successfully rescued three victims of human trafficking this year.
Some of this trafficking involves prostitution.
An estimated 60 to 90 females are trafficked for sexual purposes every year in Franklin County, officials said.
Human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world, with 15,000 to 18,000 people trafficked in the U.S. annually.
The issue of human trafficking in Ohio was first brought to the attention of Brent Currence, manager of the Ohio Missing Children Clearinghouse and member of Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray’s office, in 2005.
This year, the Ohio Highway Patrol trained its entire agency on this issue, Currence said. Prior to this, Currence estimated only 4 percent of Ohio’s law enforcement was trained on human trafficking.
“Our law is ranked as the worst human trafficking law in the country,” Currence said. “We need to update and change our laws in Ohio.”
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has established a basic training course for all law enforcement, with the first courses beginning this month, Currence said. It is in the process of creating an investigator’s course and prosecutor and judge courses, as well.
“All my life, I had searched for a word for what had happened to me,” Flores said. “It wasn’t rape. It happened more than once. I saw the definition of human trafficking, and it was like a brick hit me.”
It is estimated that worldwide human trafficking profits exceed $32 billion annually, which is more than the annual profits of Starbucks, Google and Nike combined, Wagner said.
Wagner quoted a sergeant from Atlanta’s police department, who said that there is no common thread to the victims of human trafficking and that “anything goes.”
“There’s not a one of us in this room that doesn’t fit into a victim category,” Wagner said.
When Flores, now a licensed social worker, accepted a ride with the boy, she ended up at his house instead of her own. She was date-raped before being taken home.
“I ignored all of the red flags that day, and it turned out they were right,” Flores said. “And I can tell you that [the taking of my virginity] was devastating, and unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst of it.”
Later on at school, Flores said the boy came to her and said his cousins were also there that day and had taken pictures of her. The boy wanted Flores to work to make the pictures go away, or risk having them revealed to her friends, family and church.
“At times, cars would pull over as I walked home from school,” Flores said. “I would be taken away, have no idea where I went or how long I’d be away. They threatened to kill my family if I told anyone.”
Flores said she had a phone line in her room and she would often get calls at around midnight ordering her to sneak out of the house to a waiting car.
“They would take me to the very nice homes of men, and I can’t explain to you the feeling of terror of a child, of never knowing if I’d come home again,” Flores said.
One night when Flores was 16, the car showed up with six men. She
was taken to Detroit and forced into a hotel room where two dozen men were waiting. She was auctioned off to the highest bidder.
“I was drugged, beaten, sexually molested, and I passed out,” Flores said. “I woke up alone and I couldn’t find my clothes. I had no idea where I was. It was probably the darkest, deepest despair of my life, and nobody saved me.”
Flores was eventually pulled out of her life in sex trafficking when she received help from a waitress at a 24-hour diner attached to the motel. Soon after, the police came and rescued her. Her family moved away from the area.
“Somebody saw I was vulnerable. They saw they could make money off of me, and I was living a nightmare and afraid to live my life,” Flores said. “People don’t see the psychological bondage. There are young girls and they don’t have a choice.”
Girls who are victims of sex trafficking need specialized care to get back into any semblance of a normal life, said Dr. Jeffrey Barrows, executive director of Gracehaven House, a nonprofit organization that aims to offer shelter and rehabilitation to girls under age 18 in Ohio who are victims of sex trafficking.
The house is not yet open but has been purchased in northwest Ohio. It can house up to 10 girls at a time and will be a long-term shelter for victims. Barrows said the goal is to open the house by summer 2010.
Girls will receive counseling at the shelter and will have the opportunity to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. Barrows said sex trafficking victims, on average, have the educational level of a fourth-grader.
“Many times we get people who ask us, ‘What can I do?’” Barrows said. “Raise awareness. Become informed.”
More information is available on the house’s Web site, gracehavenhouse.org.
“If you see something that doesn’t look right, feel right or smell right, it probably isn’t right,” Wagner said. “Help us out and give us a call.”
Anyone who suspects sexual or human trafficking is asked to call 614-466-2660.