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Ohio doesn't consistently track human trafficking. A new tool aims to change that

An advertisement on a park bench in Ohio reads "No one should be sold for sex" and gives resources to a human trafficking hotline.
Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force
Human trafficking is a major issue in Ohio.

Right now, there’s no consistent way to track human trafficking cases across Ohio. Different organizations use different screeners and methods to identify victims.

The University of Toledo's Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute wants to change that. In partnership with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, the institute is developing a screening tool: a questionnaire that will be distributed to schools, courts, nonprofits and hospitals across the state.

Program manager Amy LaGesse said the institute is developing two screeners: one for youth and one for adults. Agencies can administer the 17-question screeners during intake. The client’s answers can help determine if someone is at-risk of being trafficked or is actively a victim.

Not only will it give the state a better sense of the scope of the issue, it’s meant to help connect human trafficking victims to supportive resources.

“If you're going to identify cases, you have to have something set up to help those you're identifying,” LaGesse said. “What we want in place is a screener to see if people need the assistance, and then a program to go to, to receive those services.”

A hard problem to track

Human trafficking is underreported in Ohio and across the country. LaGesse said its criminal and covert nature means it's hard to track.

“Human trafficking is a crime, just like selling illegal guns. And did anybody report today how many illegal guns were sold in your county? No, we don’t know,” LaGesse said. “The same thing with human trafficking. It is a profitable crime. It is underreported.”

And, it can be difficult to self-identify as a victim of human trafficking. LaGesse said many people may not understand what constitutes the crime and are unaware of the indicators.

“So we're not asking, ‘Are you a human trafficking victim?’ We're asking ‘Where did you sleep last night?’ ‘Have you ever had an employer who takes your documentation, your paperwork, and keeps it?’ … The questions vary depending on which population we're speaking to, but we're basically identifying red flags of human trafficking through the assessments that we're using,” LaGesse said.

A statewide effort

Across the state, nonprofits and municipalities count human trafficking cases in different ways or not at all. LaGesse said that makes it harder to address the issue.

Even with the little data Ohio does have, it’s clear human trafficking happens across the state. Research shows there have been more than 1,000 cases in the last five years.

It is a profitable crime, it is underreported and we all aren't collecting data in the same way.
Amy LaGesse, program manager at University of Toledo's Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute

But, LaGesse said the state needs better data in order to best serve victims of human trafficking.

“Where are [victims]? What zip codes have the most cases of human trafficking?,” LaGesse said. “[If you know that], then your coalitions in those areas will know how to target their outreach activities, what can they be doing to reach those most at need.”

That’s why the tool will be distributed across the state. All the agencies involved in the attorney general's Human Trafficking Initiative will administer the screener. Then, the data will be housed at the University of Toledo for human trafficking coalitions to access and inform their outreach.

The screeners are being piloted in Lucas County, with the hope of having the screener available for statewide use sometime next year.

Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that organizations within the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force would use the screening tool. It is agencies a part of the attorney general's Human Trafficking Initiative that will use the tool.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.