The WCPO I-Team has been investigating claims that human traffickers are trying to snatch people in Tri-State shopping areas. The accusations come from a local nonprofit that says it has a team of former gang members rescuing trafficking and domestic violence victims in the Tri-State. Those claims have also sparked an investigation by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
Here is Part 2 of the I-Team report:
Urban Success Mentoring is doing fundraising in the Cincinnati area while refusing to disclose its board members or any of the people involved in the organization, which claims it's doing some very dangerous work.
Citing safety concerns, the woman who says she is the founder and director gives only her first name, Paulette, in the group's newly released YouTube video below. In it, she describes what her group does in Cincinnati and throughout the Tri-State.
“We have all kinds of people within Urban Success. We have the gang members that I used to work with,” Paulette says in the video. “It's dangerous work.”
Paulette told the I-Team she met the former gang members while working as a sign-language interpreter at a Cincinnati school. According to Paulette, the main focus of her Ohio nonprofit, established in June of 2016, is to rescue victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
The I-Team met Paulette in March as she was speaking to a gathering of concerned neighbors in a Symmes Township home. While the I-Team took iPhone video, Paulette described how her team would be rescuing a battered woman that very night.
"We're taking, like, nine people. He's extremely dangerous. He's got a house full of gang members and pit bulls. We're going in with a lot of people," Paulette told the group.
"He has pistol-whipped her. He has beat her. And he's now telling her friend who called us, 'She's fine. It's all good. Misunderstanding.'
"We're going anyway. That was cute, but no. She's not fine. If anything, she probably needs medical care, first aid."
An expert with the agency leading the Tri-State fight against domestic violence worries that kind of intervention increases the risk of more violence.
“I think it can be very dangerous,” said Erika Yingling, YWCA director of non-resident domestic violence services, “because we know when people flee domestic violence situations is when 80 percent of the homicides occur.”
Paulette told the I-Team her team members understand the danger.
“The women on the team are all survivors, so we can relate. We've got that real-life experience,” Paulette said.
But she also said her team members who provide counseling or crisis intervention are not professionally trained.
Paulette: “We are not social workers. We are not law enforcement, nothing even close to that."
I-Team: “So no formal training?”
I-Team: “As a nonprofit, do you do background checks on your team?”
Paulette: “No, because I know everybody personally that I bring onto the team, and their backgrounds don't bother me.”
I-Team: “You've said that they're former gang members. That doesn't bother you?”
Paulette: “Not at all. I depend heavily on them.”
Paulette said they also work as body guards for victims in court. That worries Yingling as well.
I-Team: “Are the court escorts that you (YWCA) provide body guards?”
Yingling: “No. They're advocates … I would think a body guard in court could potentially escalate a situation and maybe even cause more danger."
Paulette claims on her video that her team members are volunteers. But she also told the I-Team they receive compensation.
I-Team: “Who receives a salary or payment for rescues?"
Paulette: “Not a dime to anybody at this point. We're all volunteer.”
The I-Team asked Paulette why her website says each crisis run and court escort costs her team approximately $150.
Paulette: “Because I do pay the team members that go. I will give them something because, again, a lot of us will take off work to go.”
I-Team: “So it's not all volunteer?"
Paulette: “Not completely.”
I-Team: “How do you get to $150?”
Paulette: “Well, gas, food and then the compensation.”
Urban Success takes donations on its website, and the I-Team has confirmed it has held fundraisers at a local Chipotle, Pizzeria Locale and Loveland Skateland.
The Urban Success website states: "In 2018 our goal is to begin to acquire our own property to use as emergency crisis shelters” and "it takes us up to five hours to find an available bed in a shelter" and "most shelters will not accept male sons of our victims."
Yingling of the YWCA disputes that.
”We never turn anybody away who is in a dangerous situation,” Yingling said. “In addition, we respond very quickly to those situations of crisis, and anybody can enter, including male children."
Yingling went on: ”It's important for us as a public to know what's real and what's not, because if this message is getting out, it might really prohibit somebody who needs emergency shelter from getting it thinking, ‘I'm never going to get in anyway.’”
Paulette would not disclose to the I-Team names of any victims she has helped or names of her team members who she said are constantly out networking.
“We're heavily involved in the location and the rescue of people who've been taken for the purpose of trafficking,” Paulette said on her video.
But Yingling said she had never encountered Paulette's team.
I-Team: “She says she's in all the neighborhoods night and day. Everybody knows her and her team. Do you?”
Yingling: “No, I've never had any interaction with her or her team.”
The Salvation Army, though, said it has met with Urban Success Mentoring.
The Salvation Army oversees End Slavery Cincinnati, which takes the lead on human trafficking in the Tri-State. Maj. Everette Henry told the I-Team a representative met with Paulette a few weeks ago and "determined there was no connection between the two agencies" and "we have both gone our own ways."
Paulette told the I-Team she wanted to connect with more agencies in the area but there was an obstacle in the way.
“We would love to build more bridges with the social service community and with law enforcement, but you know it … time constraints,” she said.
Clermont County Sheriff Steve Leahy told the I-Team that Paulette’s group, based in Goshen in his county, is no substitute for law enforcement.
“I'm sure this lady has some background, some history that makes her passionate about it. But there is definitely a line here that's being stepped over,” Leahy said.
Leahy said he wanted this made clear.
”What I want people to understand, if you're a victim and you need our help, get our help,” Leahy said. “Pick the phone up. Call. Have law enforcement respond. Have the Y if you need a place to stay. We’ve never had an issue getting somebody into a shelter.
“I'm worried about something like this putting out these false narratives and you lose the real victims in the process of that.”
To be clear, Urban Success Mentoring has not been accused of breaking any laws. Cincinnati police would not grant an interview, citing the investigation underway by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Domestic violence and human trafficking are serious realities.
If you need shelter from domestic violence in the Tri-State, you can call the YWCA Crisis hotline at 513-872-9249. For other services, call 513-241-7090.
If you want to report a human trafficking situation, connect with referrals, or need crisis intervention, you can call the Greater Cincinnati Human Trafficking Hotline (513-800-1863). Outside the Tri-State, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (1-888-373-7888).