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Human Trafficking in Youngstown

By John Stran

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio —Nathaniel Pinkard, third ward councilman in Youngstown, served as a Youngstown police officer from 1979 to 1981. During this time, he never heard the term human trafficking.

“It was considered prostitution then,” Pinkard said. “Which can still be a form of human trafficking.”

Pinkard believes an issue with the movement to stop human trafficking is the name itself, adding that he is not sure if the public truly knows what it means.

“Human trafficking sounds better [than prostitution] but it encompasses a lot and there is a lot of it we don’t see.”

Human trafficking can be briefly defined as illegal activity whereby a person becomes someone else’s property, but there are many variations within trafficking as to the ‘type’ of property a person can become.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime breaks human trafficking down into three parts. The first is the act of recruiting, transferring or harboring persons.

The second element details how the act is done, which is believed to be through force, coercion or abduction. The third considers why the act is done. The UNODC sites the purpose of human trafficking as a need to exploit, whether that is through sex, labor or even human organs.

Human trafficking is widespread and contains different categories that make it a multifaceted issue.

There is labor trafficking where people are forced to do physical jobs for little to no pay. This is seen frequently in agriculture, garment and domestic work.

According to the International Labor Organization and the Walk Free Foundation, in 2016 there were 152 million children across the world involved in child labor. In that same year, these organizations report 25 million adults were involved in forced labor.

Of particular concern to many people is sex trafficking, which is the illegal sexual exploitation of a human. Sex trafficking can be broken down even further into sub-categories that are separated depending on who is controlling or forcing the victims to have sex for profit, such as a gang, a pimp or a family member.

Recent indictments in Mahoning County show the global issue has become localized in a major way.

Trafficking near me

An article published by The Vindicator in October 11, 2018, reported that four people were being indicted “for forcing juveniles and young women to have sex against their will.”

One of these four people was Ronald Hellman. According to the article, which received its information from the Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force, Hellman had engaged 80 people in human trafficking.

The young women and children he preyed upon reportedly had different drug problems― a common characteristic among trafficking victims, according to Mike Tobin.

Tobin, the public information officer for the Northern District of Ohio U.S. Attorney’s Office, said there are many human trafficking victims who don’t get along with their parents and who have vulnerabilities such as an addiction of some sort.

Character traits such as different addictions and factors like gender and age can make someone more vulnerable to becoming a human trafficking victim.

According to the FBI, sex trafficking in the United States involves roughly 100,000 children per year.  Sixty percent of child sex trafficking victims recovered through FBI raids across the United States in 2013 were from foster care or group homes.

Though New Beginnings, a residential treatment center, is not technically a group home, it provides a similar service to the Youngstown community; housing troubled children.

Pinkard said there are several group home-type facilities in his ward but he is not aware of any human trafficking of children in any of these facilities. He does receive police reports daily and is aware of the significant number of runaways from New Beginnings.

From 2013 to 2017, New Beginnings has filed 514 reports with the Youngstown Police Department, detailing missing persons and runaways, according to YPD missing persons reports for the period.

Chappie Bair, New Beginnings community relations coordinator, said there have been instances where youths were victims of sex trafficking while living in the facility.

What Bair found most difficult when trying to remove a youth from a trafficking situation is the youth’s want to stay in the situation. He said the youths feel an ‘allegiance’ to the trafficker and on top of this, if a trafficker knows their victim is staying at the facility, they are more than willing to make a visit.

The dilapidation around the facility may be another difficulty when stopping traffickers.

“There are a lot of empty houses here that unsavory characters will live in, and will try to do things that aren’t nice,” Bair said. “So we do fear that if a child goes AWOL from here, especially if they’re involved in human trafficking.”

Describing a trafficker

Just as human trafficking victims may have characteristics in common with one another, such as a drug addiction: different traffickers may share similar character traits with each other, such as being controlling or manipulative.

Jean-Phillippe Rigaud, Bureau of Criminal Investigations representative of the Mahoning County Human Trafficking Task Force, described the traffickers he has encountered as being very aggressive toward their victim, usually their partner, and then change into a caring and loving persona. Rigaud believes the loving and caring act is usually an attempt to win back the victim’s trust.

Tobin described a convicted child sex trafficker from Elyria, Ohio, named Jeremy Mack who lured his victims using drugs.

“Mack dealt cocaine and then moved into heroin and pills. Through his son, he would get in contact with girls who were addicted,” Tobin said.

“He would tell these girls he’d give them free drugs but then after a month would go by, he’d tell the girls that they owed him for the drugs and would have to repay him so he would put them to work in commercial sex,” Tobin said.

Mack lured in the same types of people Hellman did and both men lured their victims using similar methods.

The two types of traffickers Rigaud described were a partner, usually a boyfriend, and the ‘gorilla’ trafficker, which is comparable to a pimp.

Rigaud said what he noticed is that these two separate types usually blend together over time. The person may start out as a partner in a relationship, but overtime, they want to retain and increase their power in the relationship, leading to a more controlling and abusive partner.

They’re willing to let people be used for their benefit,” Rigaud said.

 Amount of trafficking in Youngstown

Since the human trafficking task force started in 2016, they have made 70 arrests; three of which were on charges of human trafficking. The arrests they did make were on charges of compelling or promoting prostitution.

“You won’t see that charge [human trafficking] much in Ohio, I mean, just take a peek online and see how many times you’ve seen that charged, because it didn’t come out too long ago, and it’s got some elements that can be challenging to prove,” Rigaud said.

With the amount of arrests made or not made by the task force, it is still difficult to tell if human trafficking is of raising concern in Youngstown.

Susan Laird, sociology professor at Youngstown State University, teaches a class on human trafficking and is the Vice President of the Northeast Ohio Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Laird said there is no agreed upon number for how many human trafficking victims there are in the Mahoning County or in the United States.

What she and Rigaud have both noticed is an increased awareness of the issue and a higher frequency of people calling the authorities about a potential trafficking situation.

Rigaud believes the increased awareness makes human trafficking bigger, in the sense that now, the education on the topic is catching up with the issue itself, making his work a bit easier, and the lives of human trafficking victims a bit more promising.

For information on how to help stop human trafficking, click here.