The prevalence of human trafficking hit home for Betty Spencer when she saw the photo of a teenage girl from Stow.
The girl was being advertised as an escort on a website that has been used in police investigations of sex-trafficking crimes.
“At first, I could hardly believe it. The idea that someone from right here in my backyard could be a victim of sex trafficking was very disquieting,” said Spencer, a retired educator in the Stow-Munroe Falls school district and chairman of the Collaborative Against Human Trafficking in Summit County.
“I go around speaking to groups, telling them that human trafficking is all around us. But I guess I really didn’t know it was right in my face. It really gave me a new perspective,” Spencer said.
Equipped with that new vantage point, Spencer is leading the collaborative in an initiative to raise awareness about human trafficking and to potentially rescue a victim during next week’s Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament.
The “S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) Project to help keep The Bridgestone Clean” is an outreach to distribute 8,000 bars of soap with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number (1-888-373-7888) to 56 local hotels and motels during the tournament.
On Thursday, volunteers ages 15 years and up worked diligently to label the soaps at Our Lady of the Elms High School in Akron. During the four-hour labeling event, Belinda Wing, a member of the collaborative and the organizer of the S.O.A.P. project, presented information about human trafficking tailored to reach youth.
“As part of the education process, we have to be able to make our youth aware of the reality of human trafficking to help them avoid becoming victims,” Wing said. “We have to get in front of our kids and let them know they are targets.”
Jan Maynor, an outpatient therapist at Child Guidance & Family Solutions, agrees with Wing. She brought a group of teenagers from her agency to the labeling event to give them an opportunity to participate in a service project and to learn more about the threat of human trafficking.
“We had a group session discussing the issue, and I thought this would be a great follow-up to that conversation,” Maynor said. “They need to know as much as they can about how people target them on the Internet and in other places. The more they know, the more observant they will be.”
The S.O.A.P. project was founded four years ago by Theresa Flores, who lives in the Columbus area. She calls herself a survivor, who as “a 16-year-old girl from a good, upper-middle-class Catholic family” was used as a sex slave for two years in an upscale suburb of Detroit.
More than 30 years later, she is advocating for the end to human trafficking, particularly the sex trade of girls and boys.
“Four years ago, I had a major flashback of my worst moment: being left for dead in a hotel. I remembered pulling myself together and going into the bathroom to clean up. I knew that I had to do more than talk. I had to do something to rescue these girls, and boys, in their worst moment,” Flores said.
“That’s how the S.O.A.P. project was born. These small bars of soap can help the people being sold by giving them a number to call for help. They can also give hotel and motel workers a number to call if they suspect something.”
Flores said research shows that the advertising of escorts on the Internet as much as quadruples leading up to (and during) major events, like a golf tournament, the Indy 500, Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four. She will be in Akron on Sunday to train adults to approach local hotels and motels with the complimentary bars of soap, information about human trafficking and posters of missing Ohio children.
Sister Barbara Catalano, of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, plans to be among those distributing the soap. She is a member of the local collaborative.
“Human trafficking is one of the most violent, degrading and unjust crimes against human beings. Our coalition is and will be working to eradicate this cancer on four fronts: education, legislation, rescue and reduction of demand,” Catalano said. “Sex trafficking mainly targets women and children. It is a trans-national, multiethnic, intercultural and extremely lucrative crime that puts billions of dollars into the perpetrators’ pockets.
“We must do all we can to eradicate this cruel injustice,” Catalano said, “and I am heartened that the federal government and the Ohio attorney general are more and more committed to helping with this task.”
The Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission (www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/humantrafficking) reports that there are more than 1,000 Ohio children sold in commercial sex in the state each year. The most common age of a child who is trafficked in Ohio is 13.
“This is a difficult crime. We need the public to tell law enforcement when they see something,”’ said Melinda Haggerty, who facilitates the commission. “The Human Trafficking Commission is working to provide a state framework for what’s going on with trafficking.”
Haggerty, the director of Children’s Initiatives in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, said the state is making progress with a multijurisdictional law enforcement task force in central Ohio and legislation that improves and expands the state’s human trafficking laws to target demand, to criminalize traffickers and “johns” more severely, to aid victims, to train law enforcement and state officials, to track data and to raise public awareness.
Last month, during the release of Ohio’s first annual Human Trafficking Statistics Report, Attorney General Mike DeWine said he is proud of the state’s efforts to focus on human trafficking.
“Viewing victims of human trafficking as victims in need of services, rather than prostitutes deserving of jail time, represents a major paradigm shift for law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and the public,” DeWine said.
Earlier this week, DeWine joined 48 other attorneys general representing states in the mainland, Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands and Guam in asking Congress to amend federal law to allow states and local authorities to investigate and prosecute people who promote sex services online through websites.
In a letter, sent Tuesday, the National Association of Attorneys Generals states “Every day, children in the United States are sold for sex. In instance after instance, state and local authorities discover that the vehicles for advertising the victims of the child sex trade to the world are online classified ad services ... The involvement of these advertising companies is not incidental — these companies have constructed their business models around income gained from participants in the sex trade.”
It was on a website the attorneys general mentioned in their letter that Spencer viewed the photo of the Stow teen.
“We are trying to pull together all of the groups, organizations and individuals in Summit County to work together to combat the problem of human trafficking, whether it’s labor trafficking or sex trafficking,” Spencer said. “Our goal is to educate and advocate for the prevention and elimination of human trafficking while connecting trafficked persons with services and resources. It would be wonderful if we can rescue at least one victim from the S.O.A.P. effort. ”
The local collaboration is in the process of building its website. For more information or to get involved, call 330-686-0245.
For more information about Flores and the S.O.A.P. project, go to www.traffickfree.com.