Police work to combat human trafficking

Posted at 5:19 PM, Apr 24, 2019

BLUE ASH, Ohio — After a teenage girl who authorities said was trafficked and sexually assaulted was found in a truck in Cincinnati last weekend, police said they're working hard to stay one step ahead of human traffickers.

Ohio has the fourth highest rate of human trafficking cases in the nation, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Blue Ash Police Officer Beth Roach, who specializes in sex trafficking cases, said traffickers have become harder to catch in the last decade, eluding law enforcement by seeking victims online.

"At this point, traffickers can sit in their living room on their computer with a snack and reach out online, and they're recruiting people that way," Roach said.

Last year, federal authorities shut down a site called Backpage, which was commonly used by traffickers to advertise their victims. Roach said that was a positive step, but it also dispersed traffickers to new sites, making it even tougher to catch them.

"Traffickers are going to dating sites, they're using Facebook and doing a lot more online recruiting," Roach said.

Plus, human trafficking is a victim-dependent crime, Roach said, meaning it can be hard to detect, investigate and prosecute these cases with the victim's cooperation.

"Most people don't usually run up to a police car and say, 'I'm being trafficked,'" she said.

At the University of Cincinnati, psychologist and assistant professor Dr. Maria Espinola works specifically with victims of sex trafficking. She has become families with the telltale signs of a victim.

"You would see victims generally looking down, looking scared, looking tense," she said. "Maybe signs of violence in their body and in their face."

Every Wednesday, she heads to the Hamilton County Courthouse to advocate for those victims, working on shifting the mentality from viewing those trafficked not as criminals, but as victims.

"Human trafficking is one of the most horrifying traumas that anyone can go through," Espinola said.

With advocates calling for change and traffickers using new tactics, Roach said police are shifting their tactics too.

Anyone who is aware of a human trafficking victim can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.