by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, June 2016) Thirty people attending a meeting at the Lorain Branch of the Cleveland Public Library at 8216 Lorain Avenue, on May 24th, learned about human trafficking in Cleveland and how to identify signs that human trafficking is taking place. A three-person panel — Renee Jones of the Renee Jones Empowerment Center, Rev. Doug Horner of St. Paul’s Community Church, and Cleveland Vice Detective John Graves – shared their experiences with human trafficking and what to look for in order to identify victims of this practice.
“Thousands of Northeast, Ohio children, women and men are enslaved to commercial sex or forced labor,” said Renee Jones of the Renee Jones Empowerment Center. The Renee Jones Empowerment Center, located at 1340 W. 65th, provides “life coaching and aftercare services to those with the courage to break the human trafficking cycle.”
Jones described how young women who run away from home can easily become a victim of human trafficking. She said usually within 48 hours of running away, another woman, a recruiter, would approach a young woman. The hungry and tired young woman is asked by the recruiter, “Can I help you?” The recruiter befriends the young person and then takes them to the pimp. Pimps online recruit other young women. They are led to believe they are in a relationship and then enslaved in the sex trade or other forced labor. Jones says recruiting can also take place in settings like juvenile court or strip clubs.
In Cleveland, Jones says mostly pimps and gangs that force young women to work in the sex industry do recruiting.
Jones says people being trafficked can be threatened with physical abuse such as pulling their hair out or burns as a way of pimps exercising control.
Jones outlined some things to look for to help identify victims of human trafficking. She said persons being trafficked are subject to coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation and economic abuse. Jones offered examples of physical abuse such as burns or pulling someone’s hair out. She also talked about the use of isolation by not allowing someone to socialize with anyone else, making the person dependent on the pimp.
Literature provided by the Renee Jones Empowerment Center lists signs of how individuals being trafficked can be identified: they suffer from relentless fear or are overly submissive; they carry no identification; they suffer from chronic or untreated health problems such as sexually transmitted diseases, post-traumatic stress disorder, physical injuries, psychological trauma and addictions; they are accompanied by a controlling person that does all the talking; or they have language or cultural barriers.
Jones said at a recent training of health care workers at MetroHealth Medical Center, when she went over these characteristics of human trafficking, a doctor told her about a guy that often brings in five or six women that are pregnant or diseased and translates and talks for them. The doctor said he never thought about the possibility that he was witnessing human trafficking until receiving the training.
Jones asked those present to “Look at things differently and pay attention.” She offered some questions to ask individuals to help determine if they are victims of human trafficking. She said before asking the questions it is important to separate the victim from the dominant human trafficker. Some of the questions are: “Can you come and go as you please? Do you owe money? Do you have to ask permission to go to eat/sleep/go to the bathroom? Did someone take your identification documents? Do you get mail?”
Jones urged those who suspect human trafficking is going on to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or to make a referral to the Renee Jones Empowerment Center where appointments can be made by calling 216-651-9601.
Reverend Doug Horner of St. Paul’s Community Church at W. 45th and Franklin talked about an incident at the church’s outreach program where they were able to trick a pimp into sitting still while a lady went to the bathroom and was ushered out a different way to be taken to a safe spot. Horner said the outreach program at the church has seen women who are victims of human trafficking and women who are engaging in prostitution on their own. Many he says are engaged in drug use or have mental health problems. He felt that many of those individuals would benefit from being in a hospital setting for a very long period of time. Horner also offered a resource for homeless youth to help prevent them from getting into this type of situation. He said help for homeless youth is available at Bellefaire JCB at 216-570-8010.
In his 14½ years on the Vice Unit, Detective John Graves says he has seen generations of women in the same family – grandmother, daughter and granddaughter involved in the sex trade. He noted that listings of escorts have moved from Craigslist to backpage.com. He says of people that are victims of human trafficking: some are forced by women, some by men.
Graves talked about the need for people to be observant and to call the vice unit when they see something that looks suspicious. Graves talked about the case of the three women kidnapped on Seymour Avenue. He said the house on the outside looked normal with curtains drawn, but on the inside the windows were boarded up with plywood. He said Ariel Castro would park his school bus there and bring in pizzas and McDonalds food several times a day where he was the only visible occupant of the house.
Graves also talked about young girls being tattooed with guy’s names on their neck, side or thighs to show ownership. He talked about being aware of people going in and out of a house and other signs of trafficking. He urged residents not to jeopardize their safety by taking photos of activity. Instead he suggested calling the Vice Unit at 216-623-5213.
Graves said on Lorain Avenue you often see females working the street. They walk alone and are looking at cars. He said they are often dressed in cut up jeans and tennis shoes, or if they are suburbanites – they may be wearing a sundress. He said usually the pimp is across the street or somewhere nearby. Graves estimated that roughly ninety percent of the women engaged in prostitution are involved with drugs. Other reasons for going down this road include trauma, abuse, homelessness, parents kicked them out, pregnant at an early age or a bad home life, said Graves. He pointed out that young boys also are victims of sex trafficking.
Neighbors around the Lorain Branch library talked about witnessing prostitution and people shooting up drugs in the neighborhood alleys and by vacant houses. They talked about the Weed and Seed program that had once tried to address the problem in the neighborhood. It was suggested that a block club be started. Rev. Horner talked about his experience on the street where he lives north of Detroit near Herman Avenue where residents got to know each other and collaborated to continuously call police when they witnessed drug dealing or prostitution.
Several people brought up the issue of possible increased human trafficking when the Republican National Convention arrives in town this July. Jones and Vice Detective Graves both thought that human traffickers and prostitution would gravitate toward the bars by W. 25th and Lorain where the money is. Graves noted that a number of bars have already applied under a new law that will allow them to be open till four a.m. during the Republican National Convention (RNC). Graves urged a call for all hands on deck for the time of the RNC. “Anyone who comes to our city and plans on using prostitutes will be dealt with,” he said.
Renee Jones said there is a Collaborative Initiative to End Human Trafficking whose member agencies are all gearing up to have a plan of action for RNC time period. Jones hopes her agency can do more outreach. She said she has had some success with a group, Prostitutes Anonymous, where women who have had experience in the sex industry can share their stories. Jones says the key to changing lives of women trapped in human trafficking situations is to offer them hope. She said, “Hope is one of the best things you can use to inspire someone to change their life.”