Rape crisis center launches a new number we should take note of, to end human trafficking: Margaret Bernstein
Print By Margaret Bernstein, The Plain Dealer
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on April 04, 2013 at 6:00 AM, updated April 04, 2013 at 6:02 AM
Ohio Gov. John Kasich looks up after signing legislation toughening Ohio's laws against human trafficking in 2012.
The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center launched a sex trafficking hotline this week, a huge announcement you might have overlooked because you thought it didn't pertain to you.
But I suggest we all take note. Because ignoring sex trafficking is exactly what enabled this problem to flourish here.
A 2010 report from the Ohio Attorney General estimated that more than 1,000 Ohio children between 12 and 17 are forced into the sex trade each year, and nearly 3,000 more are at risk for sex trafficking.
Rape Crisis Center officials predict that many of the people calling the hotline won't be trafficking survivors at all.
Instead, it might be a teacher who worries about a student with a troubled home life because she always seems exhausted and distressed.
Or maybe a friend of a runaway youth who suspects the girl is being coerced into sex for survival.
Or a mom and dad who monitor their daughter's social media accounts and notice she's developing a relationship with a guy they've never met.
These are but a few of the scenarios that might prompt someone to call the confidential hotline, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Trained staffers will give advice, refer callers to authorities when appropriate and work with survivors to escape their abusers and find help once they do.
A year ago, I wrote a column trying to wake up Northeast Ohio to the reality that human trafficking is happening here, not only in far-off countries.
But much has changed in the past year. We're starting to realize this issue is right in front of our faces.
Awareness is growing. I could feel it Tuesday evening as I stood on the chilly corner of Lorain Avenue and West 105th Street, listening to 40 or so people chanting "Stop human trafficking" at the tops of their voices.
They followed it up with a plaintive chant: "We want Gina."
The person they love and miss is Gina DeJesus, last seen at that corner nine years ago as she was walking home from school. At age 14 she disappeared on April 2, 2004.
She has never been found, and over the years, her parents have become increasingly involved with anti-trafficking efforts.
Gina's mother, Nancy Ruiz, told me Tuesday that she suspected her daughter was being trafficked from the beginning, but now she is certain of it. "I stated that my daughter was being sold to the highest bidder within the first month of her being missing," she said.
It's long been time for Northeast Ohio to get involved, to realize that our nation's raging sexual appetite is consuming its children.
"For other families who have missing loved ones, let's start something," she pleaded. "Let's do something. We need to get the word out."
Yes. It's long been time for Northeast Ohio to get involved, to realize that our nation's raging sexual appetite is consuming its children.
Says rape crisis center spokeswoman Sondra Miller, "There's definitely a demand, and there's money to be made. It's a huge money industry."
It's time to recognize that vulnerable girls from around the region, especially those coming from broken homes, are being targeted. First they're "groomed" by the pimp who tells him he loves and cares about them, and then he coerces them into having sex with him and his friends. And that's how it starts.
So what can you do? Lots.
You can urge your pastor, imam or rabbi to preach on human trafficking. Set up an alert on your computer to let you know when human trafficking is in the news. Stay only in hotels where there is a "code of conduct." Learn more about these and other ways of getting involved from the Collaborative Initiative To End Human Trafficking, 440-356-2254 or http://collaborativeinitiative.org.
You can support the Renee Jones Empowerment Center, a pioneering Cleveland anti-trafficking effort that offers several programs including Purify the Mic, a series of spoken word events that use language that doesn't debase anyone.
The organization also does street outreach to local women in the sex trade through its Project Red Cord. "I call it sowing seeds of love," explains founder Renee Jones. "We just want to show these women and young girls that they have value, that they're beautiful. We write personal notes telling them that if they ever need anything, we're here."
Volunteers can help in various ways, she says, from writing notes to filling gift bags for women in the sex trade, or by organizing an awareness event. Call 216-651-9601 or go online to http://www.rjecempower.org
Most importantly, you can educate yourself on the warning signs, to keep youths from getting swept up in the sex trade.
Right now, we're essentially tolerating the trafficking going on under our noses, by ignoring it.
So dial the hotline if you see something. That number is 855-431-7827.
To reach Margaret Bernstein: email@example.com, 216-999-4876 Previous columns online: cleveland.com/columns