Expert talks of human trafficking in area

An expert on the issue of human trafficking quickly destroyed a myth that “it wouldn’t happen here,” as she addressed a crowd of approximately 30 people Sunday at the Wapakoneta Church of the Nazarene.

Laurel Neufeld-Weaver, Sunday night’s speaker, told the story of a girl living in Lima who has since been relocated recently to protect her from her traffickers. The girl is 14.

“The girl was an eighth-grader and was getting straight A’s,” Nuefeld-Weaver said. “She had a rough life at home and met a guy, unfortunately not a good guy. She was looking for an opportunity for a relationship.”

Neufeld-Weaver then told the story of how the boy introduced her to some older men, and the girl was eventually taken to area hotels eight to nine times a day to have sex with strangers, men she had never met.

The girl managed to continue to get straight A’s through the whole ordeal, so her problem stayed under the radar. It wasn’t until a cocaine addiction set in that her secret second life was discovered. She is now receiving counseling in the shelter in which she has been relocated.

Neufeld-Weaver, who works with Rescue and Restore Coalition of Lima,  a group focused on combatting human trafficking, said Ohio is prime country for human trafficking.

The geography and highway system make it optimal, especially with Interstates 70, 71 and 75, and the fact the state is within a close proximity to Canada. Girls are often taken across international borders to  make it harder to locate them. Toledo is the fourth largest recruitment city of human trafficking in the United States.

Nuefeld-Weaver said there are two types of human trafficking, labor trafficking and sex trafficking. It is estimated that worldwide, 12 to 30 million people are trafficked worldwide, including 45,000 to 50,000 in the United States.

It is estimated that 2.2 million children are sold into sexual slavery each year, with 80 percent of those being women and 50 percent being under the age of 18. A disproportionate number of the people trafficked are people of color.

Neufeld-Weaver said girls put into situations where they are trafficked are often just looking to be accepted and loved.

“There often is a breakdown in their home and they run into the arms of pimps, or traffickers,” Neufeld-Weaver said. “They have no self-worth and they think they are being loved.  They are told they can have money and nice clothes.”

Neufeld-Weaver said that people being trafficked often stay in their position for an extended period of time because they become dependent due to their home situations. They carry self-blame and shame and are often put into situations where they fear for the lives of their families.

They are frequently moved, often across international borders.

Neufeld-Weaver said the problem has increased dramatically over the last several years, mainly because of increased communications via the Internet and improved methods of travel.

Human trafficking is now tied for the second largest illegal commercial industry in the world with illegal arms sales. Drug trafficking is still in first.

“We are trying to educate the public and get the word out on what to look for and to combat human trafficking,” Neufeld-Weaver said.” In 2012 it became a first-degree felony in Ohio. We are trying to get people to become active, whether it be telling your friends what you have learned or seeing what you can do to volunteer locally.”

One such project is Operation SOAP (Saving Our Adolescent Prostitutes). Started by a woman who had been trafficked, a hotline number is placed on bars of soap and put in hotel rooms across the country.

“It has been found that the only time people being trafficked are left alone is when they are going to the bathroom,” Neufeld-Weaver said. “This gives them the possibility of contacting someone.”

Several people in attendance discussed the possibility of participating in Operation SOAP as one of the church missions.

Jim Johnson, of Uniopolis, said he was not surprised by what he learned, but the message certainly still hit home.

“I have five granddaughters, with one at the age of 14 and the oldest being 18,” Johnson said. “I’ve known about these things, but you never think about it happening in your family. You realize how vulnerable they are. It makes me feel better that my granddaughters are watched closely.”

“It probably happens more here than what people realize,” Dia Lee, of Wapakoneta, said. “There are a lot of hotels right along the interstate. a lot of times you will see girls with much older men, and you can tell just looking at them that the man is not her father.”