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How to Recognize the Signs of Human Trafficking

If you think of the 2008 film Taken when someone mentions human trafficking, you’re not alone. Many people do. It’s more comfortable to pretend human trafficking is something that happens on the other side of the world. The reality is very different.

Judge Paul Herbert of the Franklin County Municipal Court says 85% of women trafficked in the United States are American women and girls. Human trafficking is happening right here, in neighborhoods across Ohio. You just might call it by a different name – prostitution.

Herbert is seeking to change that. He’s made it his life’s work to change our communities’ understanding of human trafficking, and turn victims into survivors. Ten years ago, Herbert founded CATCH Court (Changing Actions to Change Habits), a specialty docket in Franklin County that offers women who have been trafficked a two-year intensive probation program to exit trafficking instead of serving jail time. OhioHealth has had the honor of serving these women through our Wellness on Wheels mobile unit.

Anyone can become a victim of human trafficking, but most are women and young girls who have grown up as victims of systemic injustice, sexual violence and family trauma. They turn to prostitution because that’s often the only option for survival available to them. Traffickers offer false promises of food, shelter, love and stability. But once they’ve lured women in, they use drugs and abuse to keep them from leaving. Herbert says 82% are physically assaulted, 35% sustain broken bones and 47% sustain traumatic brain injuries. The women are typically stripped of their identity, reliant on their trafficker for money, and may be too ashamed or afraid to seek help. Trafficking is one of today’s most prevalent forms of slavery.

That’s where you come in. Everyone can be part of the solution. It begins with changing your mindset, and learning the warning signs of human trafficking as well as what makes someone vulnerable to it. But human trafficking can be hard to detect. Here are the red flags Herbert says to look out for:

Physical cues:

  • Bruises or other injuries in varying states of recovery.
  • New tattoos (traffickers often brand their victims).
  • Inappropriately dressed.
  • Signs of physical abuse or sexual assault, including sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Malnourishment.
  • Signs of self-harm or drug addiction.

Behavioral cues:

  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Confusion, phobias or disorientation.
  • Submissive, fearful behavior or emotional distress.
  • Working excessively, often until early morning hours.
  • Unexplained absences.
  • Sudden changes in behavior or attire.
  • Frequent arrests or delinquency. 

Social cues:

  • Story inconsistencies, frequent lies, evasiveness or reacting in a way that seems rehearsed.
  • Often seen with an older man or monitored by another person when interacting with others.
  • Fear of law enforcement or authorities.
  • Few personal possessions, or an influx of gifts from a fast-moving relationship.
  • Talking about commercial sex or sex acts (especially if a child or young adult).
  • Speaking of frequent travel.
  • Feeling pressured to stay in a job or situation they want to leave.
  • Owing money to an employer or recruiter and not being paid what they were promised.
  • Not having control of their identity documents.
  • Living or working in isolated conditions.

Conditions that make someone vulnerable to trafficking:

  • A history of physical or sexual abuse (Herbert says nearly two-thirds of trafficked women were sexually abused as children).
  • An unstable living situation or lack of income.
  • Substance use disorder, or a family member with substance use disorder (traffickers will often exploit addiction or sell women to fund their own).
  • Developing a close, inappropriate relationship with someone on social media.
  • Being offered a job that seems too good to be true (traffickers may pose as talent scouts).
  • Living in the foster care system, or frequently running away.

It’s important to point out that just because someone exhibits one or more of these signs, it doesn’t always mean they are a victim of human trafficking. But it could. If you suspect something, say something.

You can reach officers in Columbus Police’s new PACT (Police and Community Together) unit by calling 311. Your call goes directly to the unit and will be received by someone who has special training in human trafficking. The details you provide can also help them build cases against traffickers in the area.

You can also connect victims with help by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373.7888 or texting 23373. A representative will connect you with a local organization who can come to your location to talk with the victim. Just know that victims are not always ready or able to leave their situation. You can let them know you are their ally by not casting judgment, looking them in the eyes and showing genuine concern, listening to what they have to say, and being consistent, transparent and flexible.