Slavery in Blue Ash: The D'Souza family's story of human trafficking and how it happened here

'My dream was like a hell'

UPDATE: More than a decade after his family survived human trafficking, Harold D'Souza has a chance to help victims across the country.

President Obama has appointed the Blue Ash man to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.

"It's like a dream come true," D'Souza told WCPO. "I know what is going on in the minds of the victims. The fear is always on the victims. With this appointment, I want to address the perpetrators."

WCPO told the story of D'Souza and his family in 2014. That story is below.

BLUE ASH, Ohio – Harold and Dancy D'Souza would slip into their small apartment around 2 a.m., slowly coaxing the door open after working 15 hours straight.

They had to be careful.

Their 4-year-old son, Rohan, slept curled up against the door each night, waiting for his mom and dad as his 7-year-old brother, Bradly, slept on the floor a few feet away.

"They were sleeping like rats," Harold D'Souza said, tears welling in his eyes. "That internally destroyed us."

The D'Souzas didn't know it at the time. But they had become victims of human trafficking – a criminal enterprise that experts say is second in profitability only to the illegal drug trade.

The International Labour Organization estimated the total market value of human trafficking to be $32 billion in 2005. Those profits have since ballooned to $96 billion globally, according to a study released by the Ricky Martin Foundation in May.

In Greater Cincinnati, it's difficult to say exactly how many victims there are. Human trafficking, especially for labor, is typically hidden from view and tough to spot, said Ohio Rep. Denise Driehaus, D-Clifton, who held a town hall meeting on the issue in August.

But it's here, she said, and the same infrastructure that makes the region attractive for lawful businesses makes it ripe for trafficking people, both for labor and the sex trade.

"This is especially prevalent along the I-75 corridor," Driehaus said. "You don't always know it when you see it. We're trying to raise awareness of all of it."

That's what the D'Souza family wants to do, too.

Now that they are free from the situation that enslaved their family for more than a year, they are telling their story.

'My Dream Was Like A Hell'

Working long hours, every day of the week without pay was not the life Harold D'Souza expected when he convinced his wife to leave their home in India and move to the United States for better opportunities.

His employer had secured an H-1B Visa for him to work in the U.S. as a business development manager for a local manufacturing company. He was told he would earn as much as $75,000 per year – a small fortune compared to his pay in India.

Photo Gallery: D'Souza family rebuilds a life

"I came on a promise, a faith and to live the American Dream," he said. "The faith got changed to fear, the promise got transformed into slavery, and my dream was like a hell."

The same day Harold and Dancy D'Souza arrived in Cincinnati, their employer picked them up from the airport and took them to work at an Indian restaurant that has since been closed, the couple said.

Although Dancy D'Souza had planned to stay home to raise her sons, the restaurant owner convinced the couple they could provide for their family better if they both worked, and he promised to pay her $1,000 a month on top of her husband's salary, she said.

That day in 2003 was the start of 19 months of 15-hour workdays, seven days a week without pay, Harold and Dancy D'Souza said.

The D'Souzas don't want to name their former employer for fear that he still could retaliate against them or their sons. The man never was charged with a crime. But letters from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Ohio Department of Commerce that the D'Souzas provided to WCPO corroborate the family's story.

Harold and Dancy D'Souza sold most of their belongings in India and came to the U.S. with a few suitcases and $1,000 in cash in February 2003.

Their sons, Bradly and Rohan, stayed in India with their grandma for a few months so they could finish up the school year there. The boys arrived in Cincinnati that May.

Harold D’Souza sits down with his sons Rohan, center, and Bradly, right, to discuss the hardships they faced when forced into human trafficking. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Harold D'Souza said his employer took his cash and all his personal documents for safekeeping the day he and his wife arrived and assured the couple that he was looking out for their best interests.

At first, the D'Souzas weren't suspicious about not being paid.

In India, wages typically are paid at the end of each month, they said. And their employer told them he was setting aside money for them so they could buy a house, Harold D'Souza said. He even took them to real estate agents' open houses on occasion, Dancy D'Souza said, under the guise that he wanted to see the type of home they wanted.

All the while, he paid for the family to stay in an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment near the restaurant.

He told them they didn't need money for food because they could eat at the restaurant, which they rarely did, Dancy D'Souza said.

He also told them Americans didn't like children so their sons couldn't come around the restaurant.

Bradly D'Souza remembers walking to the restaurant after school with his little brother to see his parents.

"They'd find a few seconds to kind of say hi and ask us about our day and then go back to work," said Bradly, who is now 19 and a second-year student at the University of Cincinnati. "We'd stay there for a little bit and then head back to the apartment where we'd try to entertain ourselves."

The apartment was small, he said, with nothing to do inside.

"We lived in an area with geese," he said. "If we could, we would chase the geese."

The boys were so young – especially Rohan – that they don't have bad memories of the experience, they said.

"It's fuzzy," said Rohan D'Souza, now 16 and a junior at Sycamore High School. "They made it work so I was happy."

Harold and Dancy D'Souza's memories of that time are far more painful.

Not Hungry, But Starving

It wasn't just the boys sleeping on the floor like rats.

Harold and Dancy D'Souza remember worrying about what their sons would eat. They remember having only enough food in the house for one meal and dividing it among the four of them. The boys, at least, ate free school lunches.

"When my son would go to a friend's birthday party, he would bring food home for his younger brother because he knew there was no food in the house," Harold D'Souza said. "I can still feel it, and I can still sense it – how it feels if you're not hungry but if you're starving."

There were other challenges, too.

The winter of 2003 and 2004 was the first time the family had ever seen snow. The D'Souzas sent their sons to school in the lightweight coats they had brought from India.

The school sent a note home saying the boys needed "snow jackets" before they could return.

Harold and Dancy D'Souza didn't understand what snow jackets were, they said. They asked the restaurant's chef, and he went out and bought winter coats for the boys.

The next day, they got a note from the teacher saying the boys also needed gloves, so the chef bought those, too, Harold D'Souza said.

At one point, the restaurant owner took out a loan in Harold D'Souza's name and kept the money, Harold D'Souza said. The man then gave him a chit that detailed how much money Harold and Dancy D'Souza owed him for bringing them to the U.S. and providing their housing. The man told him the bank loan would cover only 10 percent of the debt.

"That day it shook me," Harold D'Souza said. "How am I going to pay him so much money?"

That form of labor trafficking is known as "bonded labor" or "debt bondage." The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calls bonded labor "probably the least known" but "most widely used" method of enslaving people.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines labor trafficking as: “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.” A modern-day form of slavery, labor trafficking is a fundamental violation of human rights. – U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Labor Trafficking Fact Sheet

Back then, all Harold D'Souza knew was that he had brought his family to the U.S. for a better life and instead was stuck working for a man he feared he could never repay.

There were times, he admitted, that he contemplated suicide.

"When you don't have any money or power or freedom, you surrender," Harold D'Souza said. "That's what happened. I lost my speech."

Fighting For Their Freedom

In June 2004, Dancy D'Souza decided she had to stand up for her family. She confronted the restaurant owner one Saturday and asked him to pay her and her husband the money he owed them.

"Harold was so completely emotionally broken," Dancy D'Souza said. "It took all my courage to stand up to that man and say, 'You need to just pay us our wages, and we'll be fine.'"

That's when the man told her that she had been working illegally for all those months. He said if she asked about payment again, he would call the authorities and have her deported, she said.

She asked if he would at least return the $1,000 in cash that they had brought from India. He responded that he didn't know what she was talking about.

"By God's grace, this interaction took place in the kitchen, and the chef was a witness to it," she said. "That was the last straw."

The restaurant's chef told the D'Souzas privately that they should find a way to get out of the situation – for their sake and for the sake of their sons.

One Friday a few weeks later, a lawyer for the restaurant owner visited Harold D'Souza at the restaurant and told him that if he didn't agree to the restaurant owner's terms the following Monday, the lawyer would have him handcuffed, jailed and deported on Tuesday.

Harold and Dancy D'Souza didn't know whom to trust, but they had run out of options. They gathered their sons and went to the Blue Ash Police Department.

An officer there listened to their story and referred the family to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Harold and Dancy D'Souza were thrown out of the restaurant in August 2004 after the owner found out the Department of Labor was investigating him, Harold D'Souza said.

"Once we got out of his clutches, our life was not the same," Dancy D'Souza said.

Harold and Dancy D’Souza hope their story will encourage other victims of human trafficking to seek help and contact the authorities. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

The D'Souza family could glimpse freedom, but their life went from "worst to disaster," as Harold D'Souza put it. The family couldn't afford the rent the restaurant owner had been paying for their one-bedroom apartment and had to move. They were nearly homeless but moved to a smaller, less expensive apartment with the help of a nonprofit they found through the boys' elementary school principal. Churches, community groups and individuals gave them food.

Over the course of several months, investigators with the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division handled Harold D'Souza's case, which fell under federal jurisdiction because of his H-1B Visa. The chit the restaurant owner used to tally the family's debts helped with the investigation, Harold D'Souza said, because investigators were able to match up handwriting.

Investigators for the Ohio Department of Commerce's Division of Labor and Worker Safety Wage and Hour Bureau handled Dancy D'Souza's case.

Both investigations determined the D'Souzas were owed thousands of dollars in back wages.

In February 2005, Harold D'Souza got a check for $6,097.80 as partial payment. But the D'Souzas' former employer sold the restaurant, filed for bankruptcy protection and never paid the couple what they were owed in full.

That is typical with perpetrators of human trafficking, said Colin Lindsay, a partner in Dinsmore & Shohl's Louisville office who has represented victims. He did not represent the D'Souzas.

"Sometimes the perpetrators are very adept at hiding their assets and hiding themselves," he said.

That also makes it "very difficult" for victims to file lawsuits to try and recover money, he said.

The idea of filing a lawsuit didn't occur to the D'Souzas until much later.

After leaving the restaurant where he and his wife had worked, Harold D'Souza worked odd jobs for cash or went from job to job at other restaurants to support his family, often working alongside undocumented employees who were in the U.S. illegally.

Throughout those difficult months, the family got food and emotional support from St. Saviour Parish in Blue Ash, the church they have attended since moving to the U.S., along with other churches and community groups.

Harold D'Souza ached to find a better job to provide for his family.

New Hope For A Better Life

In March 2007, he went to Cincinnati Works, a downtown Cincinnati nonprofit that helps poor people find jobs that pay a living wage. At the end of a week of training, D'Souza told his story to Jodie Drees Ganote, a law student who was working as a legal advocate for Cincinnati Works at the time.

Ganote helped connect the D'Souzas with Pam Matson, a special agent with the local FBI office, and a lawyer at Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati.

She also introduced them to Jessica Donohue-Dioh, a co-founder and the former director of End Slavery Cincinnati, which works to fight against human trafficking locally.

Donohue-Dioh was the first person to put a label on the D'Souzas' experience. She told them they had been victims of human trafficking.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services offers these tips for identifying victims of labor trafficking:

• Victims are often kept isolated to prevent them from getting help.

• Victims can be blackmailed by traffickers who threaten to report them to immigration officials.

• People who are trafficked often come from poor and unstable places where there are high rates of illiteracy and few economic opportunities.

• Women and children often are victims because of their lower status compared to men.

"It was a shocker," Dancy D'Souza said.

Both Harold and Dancy D'Souza have multiple college degrees from their studies in India. The petition for Harold D'Souza's H1-B Visa stated his bachelor's degree, master's degree and post-graduate diploma earned in India were "equivalent to a Master's Degree in Business Administration from an accredited university in the United States."

"You don't expect educated people to go through something like this," Dancy D'Souza said. "You don't think that trafficking happens in modern times, and we have that misconception that it does not exist anymore. It took a long time for us to wrap our thoughts around it."

The FBI investigated the D'Souzas' story and found "no credible witness" that refuted any of their claims and no evidence that either "was not the victim of human trafficking," according to a letter dated April 28, 2010, that the D'Souzas provided to WCPO. Matson said in a written response to WCPO's questions that she believes they were victims of human trafficking.

Still, federal prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges in the case.

"By the time they connected with us and then we connected them with the FBI, the evidence was gone," said Donohue-Dioh, who now works as an adjunct professor of social work in Xavier University's Social Work Department. "Our FBI agent here investigated for years. But ultimately, like every organization, they have to decide if they can prosecute this or not."

Matson said the FBI worked closely with the U.S. Attorney General's office and the U.S. Department of Justice.

"In the end, it was felt there may not have been sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt," she said. "One of our goals for human trafficking cases is taking care of the people who are victimized by the traffickers. In this case, we were able to achieve this goal by assisting in restoring the D'Souzas to some semblance of normalcy, and by getting them the help they needed to live and work legally here in our community."

Harold D'Souza looked into filing a lawsuit, but those were "dead ends," Donohue-Dioh said.

Ganote said she still wishes the federal government had pursued criminal charges against the man. As far as the D'Souzas know, he remains free, although they haven't had any contact with him for several years. The U.S. Departrment of Labor banned the man from sponsoring anyone to come to the U.S. for five years, Harold D'Souza said.

For their part, the D'Souzas said they are focused on looking forward, not back.

"I always tell my wife and my kids, fix the problems, not the blame," Harold D'Souza said. "And my wife used to say, 'We never tell God how big the storm is in our life. We tell the storm how big God is in our life.'"

Years Later – True Freedom

Harold D'Souza calls his family's story their "journey of freedom." After all those months of working long hours every day in the restaurant, he said, the family has achieved the American Dream they sought.

With the help of Cincinnati Works, D'Souza got a job at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center where he has worked for six years. He's now a senior supply chain associate.

In January, Harold D'Souza traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the U.S. Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime Human Trafficking Survivor Forum. He went back Sept. 26 to attend a meeting to help craft the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services to Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States.

The D'Souzas finally got their permanent residency cards this year, too. Bradly and Rohan got theirs in February. Harold's arrived in March and Dancy's in April.

"All long journeys start with a small step," Harold D'Souza said. "After 133 months, we got our freedom."

The family lives in a Blue Ash condominium they bought in 2011. They've gone from sitting on the floor to eat dinner the first night in their new home to gradually furnishing it with everything they need.

There's a dining room table with extra chairs for guests. The refrigerator is fully stocked. And bowls filled with candy sit throughout the house as reminders of the times Harold D'Souza didn't even have a quarter to buy a treat for his boys.

Their home's centerpiece is a curio cabinet filled with medals, trophies and recognitions for Harold and Dancy D'Souza's sons.

Tennis trophies for Rohan. Marching band recognitions for Bradly. Presidential service awards for both boys that acknowledge hundreds of hours of volunteering and community service.

Everly Rose, the retired director of career development at Cincinnati Works, said she couldn't think of a better example than the D'Souza family of people with the drive and motivation to succeed.

Harold and Dancy D'Souza can't think of a better ending for their story.

They hope it inspires other victims of human trafficking to overcome their fear and approach the authorities to find a way out.

"Have courage, have faith and have trust in the justice system of the United States of America," Harold D'Souza said. "That faith and trust I gained in the 12 years I've been here now, that is the reason I can talk now. Because I know there is justice in this country."


This curio cabinet contains medals, trophies and awards that Bradly and Rohan D'Souza have received. Emily Maxwell | WCPO


For help or to report suspected human trafficking, call the Greater Cincinnati Hotline at (513) 800-1863.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center can be reached at (888) 373-7888. Victims can text "info" or "help" to the resource center at the number 233733.

Photos by WCPO Photojournalist Emily Maxwell.

For more stories by Lucy May, go to Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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