Among the 50,000 people expected to descend upon Northeast Ohio this month for the Republican National Convention are politicians, power players, delegates and decision makers – the types of VIPs local leaders envisioned would help make Cleveland the international center of attention the week of July 18-21.
There are two sides to every coin, however. While the RNC will largely be considered a success for the city, it won’t all be patriotic bunting and celebratory balloon drops, because also expected among those thousands of visitors are human traffickers. More specifically, in this case, sex traffickers.
This isn’t unique to Cleveland or the RNC. Large-scale, big-money events that result in an influx of visitors – the Super Bowl, Olympics, World Cup or a political convention – are known to bring with them an uptick in trafficking, said Steven M. Dettelbach, who prosecuted several cases of sex and labor trafficking as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio before stepping down from the post in February.
“Crime is a money-making enterprise. Where there's money to be had, crime follows,” said Dettelbach, now an attorney with BakerHostetler in Cleveland.
But just as there’s been a coordinated, committed group of people that’s spent the past two years preparing and planning for the RNC’s arrival, so too has there been a group devoted to raising public awareness about trafficking and educating those who might be in a position to prevent it.
Greater Cleveland’s Coordinated Response to Human Trafficking is comprised of 29 local health care, law enforcement and social services agencies and organizations collaborating to combat human trafficking – both during the RNC and long after. Among those involved are Bellefaire JCB and the National Council of Jewish Women/Cleveland.
The Coordinated Response launched its “Happens Here Too” campaign on July 1. The campaign, funded in part by a $105,844 Victims of Crime Act grant from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office, will feature signage at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, on RTA buses and trains, and on billboards around the region. It also includes a website: happensheretoo.org.
“We’ve all worked very hard to have this finally launch, and we all know that it ‘happens here’ – and it happens here every day,” said Karen McHenry, program manager of Bellefaire’s Homeless and Missing Youth Program, who along with DeWine and others spoke at a June 30 news conference in downtown Cleveland to announce “Happens Here Too.”
In summarizing the seriousness of the task and the amount of teamwork that’s gone in to the Coordinated Response, McHenry tipped her hat to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I just have to say that it seems very appropriate to say we’re ‘all in.’”
The Jewish community has been victimized by human traffickers for generations. The NCJW’s Elaine Geller explained that at the end of the 19th century, a “Jewish mafia” that worked largely out of South America would prey on Jewish women in eastern Europe, where life at the time was difficult.
“They would pretend they were suitors for these young women, and maybe would have a pretend wedding so the parents would say, ‘OK, I’m marrying my daughter off, I don’t have to feed her anymore,’” she said, adding they sometimes also simply gave cash to families in these shtetls. “They'd then take these women, most of them would go to South America, and set them up in brothels. There were some in New York as well.”
Any promises for a better life sold to these women or families were never realized.
“(The women) weren’t allowed in the synagogues, and they weren't allowed to be buried in the Jewish cemeteries,” Geller explained of the trafficked women’s new reality. “Interestingly enough, NCJW, at the end of the 1800s in New York, became aware of this problem. They’d meet these boats with these women when they arrived in New York and try to get them away from the men.”
Today, NCJW/Cleveland continues these efforts – perhaps most notably through its volunteer role with S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution), a national organization founded by a trafficking survivor that, among other things, asks volunteers to drop off bars of soap at hotels. On the soap wrapper is a hotline number designed to help victims free themselves from their situation.
NCJW/Cleveland has visited several area hotels for this purpose, including those along Interstate 271 between Chagrin Boulevard and Harvard Road – a busy crossroads in Northeast Ohio’s Jewish community that will get even busier once the Pinecrest retail development is completed.
“We start off by giving (hotel staff) a picture of missing children. We tell them we're a nonprofit and that we're from the area and we're concerned about missing children and, ‘Could you post this picture?’ Then we get into talking about trafficking, the indicators, find out what they know,” said Geller, who leads NCJW/Cleveland’s efforts. “We try to establish a relationship, we're not lecturing.”
NCJW/Cleveland also has created a human trafficking program geared toward the Jewish community, provided educational materials to local Jewish agencies, held trafficking-themed seders, given talks on the topic at area synagogues and donated clothing to trafficking survivors from its Designer Dress Days.
“We found, for our part, the most important thing we could do was spread awareness,” said Geller, explaining how NCJW/Cleveland felt it could help. “I still have a very strong feeling that the Jewish community has its head in the sand.
“We don’t see the synagogues in any of the efforts,” she added. “I can’t blame the synagogues for this, necessarily, but oftentimes we've offered – we have a presentation geared toward a Jewish audience – but we’ve had very few takers.”
On the streets
Beth Cohen Pollack, Bellefaire’s director of organizational development, shares Geller’s “head in the sand” concern on a broad scale, but also lauds the region’s rabbinical leadership.
“I don’t think they’re shouting it from the pulpit, but they get it,” she said. “We have an extremely active, willing-to-use-their-voice group, and we’ve seen that around the issues of Tamir Rice and police use of force. I think our clergy is bold, and I think they’re really brave. They want a better, stronger community for everyone, so I think they're willing to take a stand.”
Pollack also acknowledges the ways in which Jewish day schools and Bellefaire work together.
“We’re very, very fortunate because we’re in all of these schools. We have different programs in different schools, but we are there. For instance, through support from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, we have the Jewish day school counseling program,” she said. “By having counselors in the Jewish day schools, we get to be the eyes and the ears. We’re trusted adults, so if there should be an issue, we’re present for that.”
Most of Bellefaire’s work comes through its Homeless and Missing Youth Program, the one managed by McHenry. It encompasses trafficking for the organization because oftentimes missing children are trafficked. McHenry says that within 48 hours of being on the street, a youth is solicited for sex.
“These youth who become preyed upon are vulnerable, and they're vulnerable for many reasons: stress in their family, they might be victims of physical and sexual abuse, they're not feeling accepted and loved due to their sexual orientation, or just some internal struggles they might have that lead them to think ‘nobody cares about me, I'm out of here.’ Or possibly the parents say, ‘Get out of here,’” said McHenry, adding 12- to 14-year-olds are often preyed upon. “They want someone to love them and they want someone to care for them. They're kids.”
Through its educational efforts, Bellefaire also tries to reshape the conversation surrounding trafficking victims.
“There’s so much victim blaming that happens in trafficking, like, ‘What’d she think was going to happen? She shouldn't have had sex with that man.’ … These kids don't see that,” McHenry said. “They feel very genuine that this person cares for them, and that’s why I think it’s so sad, because it goes back to basic needs being met. (Predators) do that, and then they go above that to manipulate these kids. Then getting them out, that’s really the hard part for us because there’s this ‘trauma bond’ with the predator.”
The U.S. Dept. of Justice estimates 17,000 people are trafficked annually in the United States.
Closer to home, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office reported that in 2015, law enforcement reported 102 human trafficking investigations leading to 104 arrests and 33 successful criminal convictions, according to the 2015 Human Trafficking Commission Annual Report. Those figures represent an increase from 2014, when there were 85 investigations, 98 arrests and 17 convictions.
But by and large, human trafficking statistics are hard to come by, in part because it’s a crime that hides in plain sight. Not surprisingly, statistics related to the Jewish community and trafficking don't exist.
However, Dettelbach said no community is immune.
“People who have in their mind a certain type of victim in these cases are not correct. I’ve found that the only commonality in victims in these cases is that the bad guys, the predators, can spot vulnerabilities,” he said. “Those vulnerabilities can maybe be alienation from a family … or (a child) might be going through the things that make kids confused. I'm not saying this just as a lawyer and former prosecutor, but as a father. It’s your worst nightmare. These people who recruit for this crime don’t limit themselves to one ZIP code.”
Local headlines support that. Among them: Three people were indicted by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office July 12 for sex trafficking in Independence; Dettelbach prosecuted an Ashland couple for labor trafficking that took place between 2010 and 2012; and a man was convicted in 2014 of running a heroin-fueled prostitution ring out of a hotel in Orange.
“This crime is all over the place. It's online, and it's down the street. We had a case of a young girl who somebody attempted to sell – I mean, sold the girl, a human being – at the Starbucks on West Sixth Street,” said Dettelbach, adding that being “better neighbors” helps combat trafficking given that public interactions are needed in order for the trade to flourish.
“The one crime I can tell you we can't stop is the one we never find out about,” he said. “If it’s a little uncomfortable to get involved in a situation, I think people need to balance that sort of minor discomfort with what happens to these victims if nobody says anything.”
Too often, Dettelbach said, people shy away from getting involved in a way that might help.
“Everybody has their own urgency to their lives, and getting involved in something that’s controversial, confrontational and messy seems like, unfortunately, just an extra thing we don't need,” he said. “But if you've ever known or seen anybody who’s been a victim in one of these cases, you’ll never think that again – because you'll look at all the people these poor young girls came in contact with, and you'll ask yourself, ‘Could somebody have said something?’ If only one person had said something at some point, things might've been different.”