Throughout 2019, Northeast Ohioans and others registered 35 million views of the Collaborative to End Human Trafficking’s “Human Trafficking Happens Here Too” public awareness campaign, which consisted of billboard ads, brochures, rack cards and posters on GCRTA buses and in the concourses at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
“Our primary objective was to get people to believe that human trafficking was happening in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio,” says Karen Walsh, president and CEO of the Collaborative.
Defined as a commercial sex act or labor performed by individuals through force, fraud or coercion, human trafficking was officially acknowledged as a federal crime in 2000. Founded in 2007, the Collaborative was ahead of the curve in realizing that the region needed to address this inhumane transgression; Ohio passed a law against it in 2010.
“Years ago, victims were misidentified and often incarcerated,” Walsh explains. “This is not a new crime; we just gave it a new name, and the federal law led to that paradigm shift to make the trafficker, the person forcing the victim into prostitution, the criminal who should be prosecuted.”
Walsh was at the heart of a group of community leaders from diverse fields who recognized the insidious problem of modern slavery that had been “hiding in plain sight” throughout the region and decided to fight it. They launched the Collaborative to accomplish three primary goals: educate, advocate and connect services on behalf of those who are trafficked. This included bringing together key institutions, organizations and professions that could make the systemic changes necessary to combat trafficking and help individuals who have been victimized.
Early on, realizing the immensity of the task, Walsh and the Collaborative knew they needed to engage everyone in the community. Meetings with professionals in fields such as health care, law enforcement and social services resulted in the creation of key initiatives to counter the problem. For example, Walsh encouraged Collaborative’s members to “bloom where you’re planted.” The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center (CRCC) developed and implemented Project STAR (Sex Trafficking Advocacy and Recovery). The service provides a hotline for victims and professionals to call and expert, trauma-informed crisis intervention, advocacy and counseling for survivors of sex trafficking in our community.
Their role would be to disseminate accurate, credible information to the various professions and systems and advocate for victims by getting the right people together in subcommittees to develop best practices for each of the important systems.
“The Collaborative helps us figure out the most effective ways for each of our organizations to deploy resources so that more survivors of trafficking are identified and helped,” says Sondra Miller, president and CEO of CRCC.
One initiative of the Collaborative is the Greater Cleveland’s Coordinated Response to Human Trafficking in Northeast Ohio, a multidisciplinary group working together to build a systemic response that is coordinated and comprehensive. The growing team of nearly 60 institutions, businesses and organizations range from Bellefaire JCB Homeless and Missing Youth, the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services and the Cleveland Division of Police to the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association, UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital and Ursuline College.
One participant, Det. James Mackey, director, the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, sees the Coordinated Response initiative as an opportunity to interface with organizations that members of law enforcement most likely wouldn’t have had in the past.
“Because of our interactions with all of these entities, we can tell our victims with confidence that there are meaningful organizations and activities they can partake in that we previously wouldn’t have been able to talk about,” he adds.
Recently, the Public Safety Subcommittee (a subcommittee of the Greater Cleveland’s Coordinated Response to Human Trafficking in Northeast Ohio) held a meeting, out of which came a tool for law enforcement officers, providing them with suggested best practices in the form of a laminated card. The card includes important telephone numbers for CRCC, Department of Children and Family Services and the Human Trafficking Task Force. This tool gives the officers the ability to coordinate responses.
“It is vital that law enforcement knows what to do when they come upon a suspected victim,” says Winnifred “Winnie” Boylan, executive vice president, programming, for the Collaborative.
According to Boylan, efforts are underway to reach nearly 5,000 law enforcement officers to share best practices and get everyone on the same page.
This year, the Collaborative is working on coordinating the location of trainings. The organization also is planning to translate certain pieces of the public awareness campaign into Spanish. Other goals include developing a continuum of care that illustrates key issues and needs of victims and identifying qualified resources to address those needs and issues.
In addition, Walsh and Boylan plan to work with the media to ensure they are correctly portraying trafficking. Depicting the crime by showing women in chains or with their hands bound, for example, is detrimental. The chains are invisible. Instead, traffickers enslave victims by methodically grooming them and taking advantage of their vulnerabilities, which may include poverty, age, low self-esteem, dependency, addiction and/or mental or physical disabilities. Victims who are never tied up may not understand they are being trafficked. Victims don’t self-identify. During a trial, it also confuses jury members when there is no evidence that a victim was physically constrained or bound.
“Every year, we get better at making more people aware, getting more people engaged and connecting more dots,” Walsh concludes. “But we’ve got a long, long way to go, because there are still people who don’t understand that human trafficking happens here, too.”