After sunset, Esther Flores drove around Columbus in her red van, nicknamed the Love Bug. A bandana covered the top of her curly hair and her mask was decorated with the word love.
Flores is the founder of the non-profit organization 1DivineLine2Health. Part of the group’s job is to provide food, clothing, condoms and Narcan to women who sell sex on the streets of Columbus. She pulled into an alley when she spotted a woman she had known for two or three years. The woman had recently managed to stay off the streets for six months, but now she was back.
“I wasn’t trying to come back here, period, but I didn’t know anything else,” she said.
The woman had ordered her social security card and birth certificate and wanted to find a job. But now she was living in a car. Flores started showing her clothes in the back of the van. Soon the woman began to cry.
“I don’t want you to cry, you are going to make me cry,” Flores told her. “You are a fighter. You are one of the bravest women here.
Before Flores left the woman with food and warm clothes, she made plans to help her undergo drug treatment. She believes it is important to meet women where they are by providing them with their basic needs. By building relationships with women, she is then a resource when someone wants to recover or access health care. Getting arrested is not what these women need, said Flores.
“Most of our girls have drugs, canvassing, loitering, petty theft,” she said. “So you have a criminal record, how can you find a decent place to work? How to get decent housing? “
In Ohio, when police arrest people for selling sex, it is sometimes publicly described as an effort to combat human trafficking. But sex work and sex trafficking are not the same. In sex trafficking, someone must be coerced into engaging in commercial sexual activity by force, fraud or coercion, or be under the age of 18.
But some groups in the state use the terms almost interchangeably. In January, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office released a Press release claiming that eight women were rescued in a human trafficking attack.
But according to police, only two of the women were even suspected of being trafficked. They arrested the eight women. In this case, saved meant arrested and accused of prostitution.
As of 2020, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office has asserted that more than 100 victims of human trafficking have been rescued through needle-stick operations. When contacted for this story, the office was unable to provide information on the number of rescued victims who had been arrested and charged with prostitution. He also failed to provide evidence that any of the human trafficking bites he had been involved in since 2020 resulted in human trafficking charges.
“I usually show a few photos when giving a presentation of what the rescue looks like,” said Celia williamson, a distinguished professor of social work at the University of Toledo who studies human trafficking. “I show a dog rescued from a fire. I show a hand that goes into the water to save someone who is drowning. And then I show a picture of a child, a 16 year old teenager sitting on a bed. in handcuffs. One of those things is not like the others, like Sesame Street. We still call it rescue, but it looks like an arrest. And arrest is what happens when you did something wrong.
For people selling sex on the streets, whether or not they’ve been trafficked, she said they didn’t deserve to be criminalized. Instead, they need services, she says.
But Attorney General Dave Yost said arresting the survivors was a way to give them access to these services.
“Having court oversight with the carrot and stick of services and a potential jail time is just essential to help them get to the point where their brains can reconnect, develop new habits, and have a chance for lasting sobriety.” , Yost said.
He said he understood the argument that victims of human trafficking should not be arrested.
“But I’ve also seen work at places like CATCH Court here in Columbus, and they’re relying on the potential of the jail sentence hanging over the survivor’s head to help her stay focused,” did he declare.
CATCH Court in Franklin County is one of specialized judicial programs for victims of human trafficking. Participants receive mental health and substance abuse treatment and may end up serving less jail time.
But only 72 people have completed the program since its launch in 2009. Analysis of data from 2012 to 2017 found that 90% of those accepted into the program were white, according to information provided by former CATCH court coordinator, Hannah. Estabrook. Only four other counties in Ohio even have these programs.
Yost said he knew human trafficking and prostitution were two different things.
“Ultimately, however, I have no problem classifying prostitution charges under human trafficking because they become one and the same,” he said.
But what may seem like a semantic difference has real consequences, according to Bridgette carr, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
“Every time we say that we are doing a human trafficking bite when in reality we have just arrested a group of people for prostitution, we make labor trafficking invisible and we don’t really care. sex trafficking, ”she said.
Arresting people who engage in sex work by choice makes them more vulnerable and can help traffickers who want to identify vulnerable people, she said. Furthermore, she does not agree with the idea that arrests are the way we should provide services to people.
“This idea that you have to be stopped to access these services was created by us. It is not set in stone. It was not part of what happened during the formation of the earth, ”she said. “It was created by us as a community. We decide how people access these services. “
At a walk-in center Flores opened this year in the Hilltop neighborhood of Columbus, she gathered women for a hot meal on the porch. Had chicken and vegetable soup and cupcakes offered by a local bakery. A woman was bundled up in a red Buckeyes scarf while smoking a cigarette. She told Flores, speaking from experience, that being arrested for prostitution does not help.
“It makes the situation even worse because now where we were able to take care of ourselves, now we are starving here because we can’t even take care of ourselves,” she said. “So why put us in a worse situation?”
“Incarceration is not, is not, is not rehabilitation for this population that we work with,” said Flores. “They must have a choice. They need a place where they can feel comfortable, talk, cry, get angry, get angry. And when they’re ready, we can take them to a place.
The woman finished her cigarette and a few others got ready to leave. They headed to the parking lot behind the drop in the center, and Flores got behind the wheel of the Love Bug to bring them back to where they needed to go on the street.
This is the third story in WYSO’s Trafficked series about human trafficking in Ohio. Log on to 91.3 or head to wyso.org next Wednesday for the final piece in the series. Find out how labor traffic is often left out of the conversation.
Chloe Murdock helped research this story.