November 22, 2014

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Former sex slave warns of human trafficking

LORAIN — Theresa Flores spoke to a room of community activists and young girls — girls not much older than she was when she became involved in the secret world of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is the exploitation of a person for sexual or labor purposes, Flores explained.

According to Flores’s book, “The Slave Across the Street,” Flores herself was exploited when she was tricked and blackmailed into sexual slavery at the age of 15.

Flores said she was raped, blackmailed and forced into a prostitution ring while a high school student in Detroit. Her story was unusual — her middle-upper-class parents had no idea what their daughter was doing after school.

Her story is not uncommon, Flores said.

According to Flores, Ohio is the fifth leading state for human trafficking. Lorain, she said, is ideal for human trafficking due to its location.

“With Cedar Point opening up, this area is just a high-traveled area,” she said.

Ohio’s large number of strip clubs, high immigrant population and tourist attractions, such as Cedar Point and Lake Erie, are all desirable for those who operate human trafficking rings, Flores told the group Saturday.

In 2009, Toledo was No. 4 in the nation in terms of the number of arrests, investigations and rescues of domestic minor sex trafficking victims among U.S. cities, according to the FBI’s Northwest Ohio Innocence Lost Task Force.

In Ohio, there are an estimated 1,800 children being trafficked annually.

Flores said victims do not have to be trafficked across state lines for the crime to be considered human trafficking, and any prostitution involving a juvenile is considered human trafficking.

A Columbus resident, Flores has noticed the signs of human trafficking in Ohio, and because of this, she decided to team up with the Human Trafficking Collaborative of Lorain County to raise awareness of the problem.

The Human Trafficking Collaborative is headed by Mindi Kuebler, Shawn Cleveland and Kristi Miller. Kuebler and Miller work at the Nord Center, and Cleveland is a specialist in homeless outreach at the Gathering Hope House in Lorain.

The Gathering Hope House was the location for Saturday’s meeting. Following the presentation by Flores, the group passed out bars of soap to local motels — areas Kuebler said are popular spots for human trafficking. The number for the national human trafficking hotline is listed on the soap.

“We hope it will help somebody get out of a situation,” she said.

While the group acknowledged that many people do not believe human trafficking exists in the U.S., Kuebler, Miller and Cleveland said they have all spoken with victims of the crime.

Cleveland said a 19-year-old Mexican male immigrant approached him at the Gathering Hope House. He had been sexually assaulted and was a part of forced labor in Lorain. Cleveland said many immigrants are illegally trafficked across the border who believe they are in the U.S. legally. They are then exploited and forced to work for little or no money, Cleveland said.

Kuebler, manager of the sexual assault unit at the Nord Center, said many victims have opened up to her that they have been involved in human trafficking in the area. The victims are as young as 14, she said.

“We’re just starting to crack open what is going on now in Lorain County, and what we’ve found so far has come through the sexual assault unit,” Kuebler said.

Lorain police Lt. Mark Carpentiere said the Police Department does not have any human trafficking cases currently, but that does not mean that the problem does not exist. Carpentiere said many victims of rape or sexual assault are afraid to approach police officers.

Kuebler said that because many victims are afraid to go to law enforcement, there is a need for special services in Lorain such as the Human Trafficking Collaborative. The group has put up several billboards in the community with its tip hotline, (888) 373-7888.

She recommended that victims call the group’s local number, (440) 714-1380.

“Definitely just call the hotline number, especially the local number, even for tips to let us know that they think something’s going on,” she said. “If you’re a victim, definitely call that 714-1380 number, because we have it with us all the time.”

Flores said many young girls are often brought into sex trafficking by reading false job advertisements, by their older boyfriends or even by being targeted at high school parties. She said there are several warning signs to watch out for if someone suspects a girl may be trafficked.

If a girl misses school a lot, becomes involved with drugs, is anxious or avoids eye contact or has large amounts of cash, they are all possible signs of human trafficking, she said.

Flores stressed that human trafficking is not restricted to one area.

“It’s happening in every community, across the United States,” she said. “We really need to open up our eyes and realize that this is a bigger problem than we think it is, and we really need to start rescuing these kids.”

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com.