Modern-day slavery. When we think of human trafficking, it’s something we know happens in third-world countries of Asia, or the red-light districts of Eastern Europe—places far removed from where we sit in North America. Truth is, it’s everywhere, including Cleveland.
“I can remember being 11, 12, drinking, sneaking marijuana. Then I moved and it just- it got out of control. I had a son at 17, got my own place at 18. And then I got a good job- I don’t know when it went over the line. This job…they started doing drug testing. I had a company car, I got in an accident and I panicked and just never went back to my job. I started running out of money and my son was turning 17, he never knew what I was doing but I needed to make sure he was taken care of. I was homeless, and when I needed money for my drugs, I knew about prostitution, and I thought ‘Let me go and just try it.’ And I just never came back out. I was about 35. I’ve had many traffickers, because I always needed somewhere to stay. Sometimes even other girls would pick you up, they’d say ‘Hey, you can go over to his house and get a bed’, food and that.”
– Annette, 52, Cleveland.
“He [the trafficker] wasn’t like the other boys. They all wore jeans to school. He wore slacks that were pressed with the crease down the middle, he wore Ralph Lauren shirts and drove a black Trans-Am… It took just three words. He said, ‘I like you.’”
Theresa Flores, 43, Dublin, Ohio, via TEDTalk
A major misperception of human trafficking is who it happens to. Annette is black, middle-aged, from a Midwestern city, and suffering from addiction. Theresa Flores is white, trafficked at 15, and from a suburban Ohio town and strict Catholic family. Annette traded her freedom for drugs while Flores was blackmailed into trafficking by her new high school “boyfriend.” He drugged her, took photos of her having sex with him, and threatened to publicize the photos to keep her silent and working.
People with disabilities or unusually high debt, immigrants (both legal and illegal), and those who are easily infatuated by a bit of charm are the most vulnerable to becoming trafficking victims.
“I was 16 and working at The Gap when I met him [the trafficker]. He had a child, and I kind of admired that he was a dad and taking care of his daughter. He was the first man to bring me to that peak, to have an orgasm, so I was really- I was attached to him. He was from Cleveland, and… there was just something different about him than the other guys.”
Tamar, 35, Denver
Tamar introduced her new boyfriend to her parents, received their approval, and began building a life with him. The life of illegality began two years in to their relationship when he developed a gambling problem. Tamar was pregnant and wanted to keep her family together, and she knew the potential for wealth, so she accepted her boyfriend engaging in trafficking. Within a year after giving birth, she suffered druggings, beatings, and verbal abuse on a regular basis, as did the women he brought home to work for him. She would be working for him, too, for the next 18 years.
From there, it’s just a matter of adapting to your circumstances.
“I had nowhere to go and sleep at night,” Annette says. “I didn’t want to get high no more, but I still had no money for a hotel room, so here you go again to the same guys that know me, the same guys who had raped me, the same guys who had sold me the drugs.”
“At the time, I’m like, super-hoe, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go out and make all this money for daddy,’” Tamar says. “The other women I had to deal with, the jealousy, and the fighting- you know, I never physically had to fight one of them, but he was always like, he put his hands on me the most. I think for him it was a fear tactic.”
Tamar says she would get short breaks when he was sent to prison for more minor crimes and that she did try to leave him several times, but was always drawn back. Sometimes it was for love and promises that he would change, sometimes to preserve her family (by then she had had two children with him), and sometimes for money.
“[Once] I ended up leaving him and moving back to Colorado,” Tamar says. “And I was trying, I really, really tried. I got a job at a car wash making $10 an hour. But day care was too expensive, like $800 a month, and I had to make rent, and I had no life. I had been making over $1,000 a day when I was prostituting. I ended up going back to him in Cleveland on a plane in the middle of the night.”
Ohio currently ranks fourth in the U.S. for reporting cases of human trafficking victims. “Ohio has several factors that make conditions ideal for traffickers,” says Cleveland Police Academy instructor George Kwan. “Our highway/interstate system lets them move quickly throughout the state and into adjoining states. Ohio also is rich in diversity with many ethnic enclaves and neighborhoods. This creates desirable places to visit and to live, and traffickers can operate and pursue potential victims blending into these areas.”
Winnifred Boylan, executive vice president of programming for the Collaborative to End Human Trafficking, attributes the high ranking to the effectiveness of the awareness campaigns.
“We believe that this ranking points to the significant collaborative multi-systemic effort in Ohio dedicated to the raising of awareness of human trafficking thus prompting more calls to the national hotline,” she says.
Public awareness plays a crucial role in the fight against human trafficking. A 2017 report by the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force found that human trafficking awareness campaigns were the top referral method for calls from Ohioans to the national hotline.
Experts point out that regardless of race, social status or gender, no one is immune. The “Happens Here Too” movement is a public-awareness campaign across Northeast Ohio, getting the word out that human trafficking occurs in our own backyards, in wealthy suburbs, and to people from good families.
A young woman at a bus station who looks nervous and confused about where she is could be a victim of human trafficking being shipped to a buyer just as easily as she could be a new college student from out of town. A high school classmate with a controlling boyfriend could be just that—or it could be something more. The signs aren’t obvious; law enforcement says they most often rely on victims being willing to talk about their traffickers or people close to the victims who suspect it in order to investigate and make arrests. This is a frustrating obstacle in their path, but for most victims, silence also means survival, making the voices of those who notice and those who care all the more valuable.