While most of us focus on getting to work, getting the kids to bed and making lunches for the next day, there’s a team of investigators out on the streets with a different focus. They’re working to stop human trafficking.
Just over the last year, the Ohio Investigative Unit put a new emphasis on this activity, as part of the Governor’s Human Trafficking Task Force. The unit is a component of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
“We look for human trafficking wherever we go,” said an undercover agent who brought ABC 6/FOX 28 along for her regular shift, which begins at 4pm and lasts well into the next morning.
Members of the Ohio Investigative Unit, focused on offenses related to liquor, tobacco and food stamps, now also look beyond those issues for victims of human trafficking.
“It could be a carryout that’s on complaint for food stamp violations and when we’re in that area investigating that complaint, we’ll also be looking for human trafficking because we know how prominent it is in areas now,” said the agent.
It’s prominent enough for Ohio to rank 4th in the nation for the number of reported cases, behind only California, Texas and Florida.
These agents are trained to look at our community with a different set of eyes.
“We broaden our focus on more than just the initial complaint in order to help save these victims,” she said.
When they identify a victim, agents work to connect them with advocacy groups specifically trained in human trafficking cases Many victims are much younger than you might think.
“The average age for a human trafficking victims is 13,” said the agent.
Stephanie Rollins, a Columbus resident, lived it.
“At the age of 12, ran into my human trafficker,” said Rollins.
She thought he was her boyfriend and that he loved her. He kept the alcohol and drugs flowing, getting her hooked.
“I felt that I owed him whatever he asked of me to do, I did,” said Rollins.
What followed was a life on the streets.
“I’m over here, I’m doing what I know,” said Rollins. “And, you know, it wasn’t nothing abnormal. I’ve been doing it all my life.”
Cocaine to heroin, looking to numb the pain of a life, she says, was eating her alive. Stephanie remembers the moment she turned to a different power.
“God, please help me,” she remembers pleading. “Help me – put people in my life to show me how to live life, because I don’t know how.”
Now five years clean – to the day – she transformed her life. Rollins now has grandkids and works at the peer center. She also devotes time each week to share her story with other young human trafficking victims.
“I’ve been there, in different ways, shapes and forms,” said Rollins. “But if I can just say ‘honey, honey, please don’t.’ This is what happened to me.”
It’s an important message for young people in our community.
“The stories that we hear from children are absolutely horrendous,” said Brooke Pollard, Resource Coordinator for Gracehaven, a non-profit in Columbus that focuses on the 12-17-year-old victims of human trafficking.
What she hears from those young women is shocking.
“When I talk to the girls that we serve in our house and I ask – ‘what kind of men are purchasing sex from you?’ And they say ‘These are doctors. These are prominent figures. These are lawyers. These are politicians. These are salesmen. These are businessmen’,” said Pollard. “These are people who are very well known in the community who think that they can get away with it that this is a victimless crime and that they can, just like you can go to a vending machine and buy a coke or buy a bag of chips, you can go and buy sex on your lunch break.”
It’s a cycle the Ohio Investigative Unit hopes to break.
“I want people to know that this is very real,” said Captain Gary Allen, the commander of the Ohio Investigative Unit.
Capt. Allen believes their agents are already making a difference with this new emphasis on human trafficking.
“When you protect and serve, that’s what you want to do, you want to protect and serve,” said Capt. Allen. “You want to help people.”
So, every night, the unit continues its patrols, looking not just for suspects, but also victims.
“Human trafficking occurs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” said the undercover agent. “We really do have to keep our eyes open and we really have to be on alert and aware of what’s going on around us.”
Those who work directly with healing victims know – it will take the awareness of our entire community to make a meaningful difference.
“As long as you have a demand and people want to buy sex from children, somebody will supply you with child victims,” said Pollard.
As a survivor of child sex trafficking, Stephanie Rollins is now excited for the future. It’s a life she never thought she’d have.
“I had no idea,” said Rollins. “I had no idea life could be this free.”