In plain sight

Dayton: A human trafficking hub

By: Joyell Nevins

Photo Credit: William Murdock Photography


MYTH: Slavery ended with the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

FACT: Modern-day slavery, otherwise known as human trafficking, is still very much alive.

MYTH: Women sell their bodies for sex by choice.

FACT: While there are some prostitutes who do choose to enter that “profession,” a large majority are forced into it through a field of human trafficking known as sex trafficking.

MYTH: Traffickers and prostitutes patrol the streets at night, wear skimpy clothes and make leering gestures.

FACT: The highest sex-selling times are early morning as men go to work and lunch time. The key is not the clothes the women wear, or the hand gestures they make – it’s eye contact. They look like anyone else, walking down a street or sitting at a bus stop, but they are looking to make eye contact with someone driving by.

MYTH: A pimp is the epitome of cool (think of musical lyrics such as “big pimpin’, spendin’ g’s” or “If you feelin’ like a pimp, go and brush your shoulders off”).

FACT: Pimps, known by the women as dope-boys or handlers, do just that – handle the ones they control through a deadly combination of abuse, fear and drugs.

MYTH: That doesn’t happen here in Dayton.

FACT: Yes, it does.

Welcome to the dark world of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is defined by three key words: force, fraud and coercion. When someone is made to labor without compensation or perform sex for hire, but not by their willful consent, that’s trafficking – and it starts young. According to the organization Free the Slaves, there are approximately 27 million victims worldwide. According to the Polaris Project, it is the fastest growing criminalized industry in the world and is the second largest criminal industry, topped only by the illegal arms trade. Nationally, more than 100,000 children are thought to be involved in the sex trade.

In the state of Ohio, the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission (AGHTC) reported that 49 percent of those in sex trafficking started younger than 18 years old – 13 being the most common age to begin. Ohio’s highway system, with several major interstates and replete with truck stops, along with its previous lack of effective legislation, makes it rife for human traffickers. (Last year, Tipp City police stopped a man for speeding and discovered he was driving from Toledo to Indiana with a female for the purpose of sex trafficking.) From massage parlors in Warren to child pornography in Cleveland to a sex ring in Wickliffe, this problem is not just an overseas issue.

Let’s bring it closer to home. Dayton, being right at the heart of the I-70/I-75 exchange, becomes a hub for traffickers, especially during high-demand sporting events. Dayton’s high number of colleges means there are a lot of young, possibly unconnected, people flooding into the area as well. Add the many families living in generational poverty and the problem’s right here.

Montgomery County Judge Gregory F. Singer put it this way, “When a deviant wanted to have sex with an 8-year-old, he went to Bangkok or Amsterdam. Now he can have it in Dayton, Ohio.”

Here’s a sampling of cases that have made it to prosecution.

July 2013: An internet sex sting conducted by the Dayton Police netted nine arrests, as reported in the Dayton Daily News. “We’re looking for the guys that come into our city only for one thing, to hire a prostitute to do a sex act,” said Dayton Police Sgt. Chris Fisher. The fines collected as a result of these infractions go to the Oasis House.

August 2012: In the area of North Main Street and Norman Avenue, a 20-year-old woman made eye contact with a passing undercover Dayton police officer. When the officer pulled over, he was approached by her handler to make a deal. After payment, the woman was ordered into the vehicle. When the officer identified himself, she told him she was forced into prostitution.

February 2012: A Troy resident was arrested for having sex with his three adopted sons between ages 9-12, and using the Internet to sell one, age 10, for sex with two other men. Both men, one of whom was from Beavercreek, were also arrested. It was later discovered the Beavercreek man was also purchasing sex from a Columbus man willing to solicit his 8-year-old nephew.

November 2011: During another Dayton Police undercover operation, a 34-year-old woman offered an undercover officer a sex act in exchange for money. When he went to arrest her, she told the officers she was in fear for her life and that her 48-year-old boyfriend would beat her if she did not come home with enough cash for him to buy drugs – officers confirmed physical signs of abuse, including burn marks on her face from a cigarette. The “boyfriend” was arrested when he showed up thinking the woman was not getting paid for her work.

November 2009: A 16-year-old Mexican girl was forced into domestic labor and sex in a Springfield residence after being trafficked across the U.S. border. The situation was discovered when the girl was brought to a Dayton hospital to give birth and doctors noticed clear signs of physical abuse.

October 2008: A woman from Dayton was sentenced to 18 months in prison for selling her 17-year-old daughter for sex in order to support the mother’s drug habit.

Walk down East Third Street to Xenia Avenue at high traffic times or visit certain establishments on North Dixie Drive and you’ll find sex transactions occurring on a regular basis. Those transactions may include manual stimulation, oral, anal or vaginal sex. Buyers, or “Johns,” can include men and some women from various professions: lawyers, teachers, military, retail, factory workers or drug dealers. Even though money is being exchanged for services, most of those women are not doing it for their own gain.

But the truly twisted part is that for many of the women it’s become a way of life – an accepted behavior. A Domestic Sex Trafficking report in August 2012 by the AGHTC (with University of Dayton professor Anthony Talbott aiding in the research) completed surveys with victims in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus and Dayton. In Dayton, the percentage of women who started before they were 18 was eight times higher than adults who were forced into the sex trade. The highest risk factors for minor victims in Dayton were having been raped, dating a much older boyfriend and being worried about where to sleep and what to eat. Cheryl Oliver, program director of the Dayton-based Oasis House, pointed out many women they’ve worked with ingested crack cocaine because it would keep them up – they had nowhere they felt safe enough to close their eyes to sleep.

The Oasis House, dedicated to helping women in the sex industry, reported that 98 percent of their clients were neglected as children, 95 percent were violated domestically and 95 percent were sexually abused as children. Eighty percent of the women, by the time they get to Oasis, have developed deep rooted mental health issues – post traumatic stress disorder, bipolarity and even dual personality – in attempt to deal with the trauma.

“When you have that going from a child, now you’re 18 and you’re criminalized for the same behavior,” Oliver said.

The dope-boys may control their women by beating them, burning them, raping them, letting their buddies rape them, pulling them down the street by their hair or threatening to kill their family.

“It just instills fear,” Oliver said.

Yet, many women call their handler their “boyfriend.” They become convinced that he’s the one who has to protect and take care of them, or that’s how “love” is expressed.

“What we’ve seen is nothing short of brainwashing,” said Elizabeth Van Dine. “It’s psychological enslavement.”

Van Dine is one of the brains behind Be FREE Dayton, one of many groups committed to fighting trafficking in Dayton.

“Until they experience life in freedom, not just no longer enslaved … You can be physically free, but you are still so trapped by that mentality that you’re still enslaved,” she explained. “It takes a lot of time to learn that this isn’t what love looks like.”

So is this a hopeless cycle? Are we as a city doomed to be a harbor of human trafficking and abuse? Thankfully, many groups are answering that question “no.” In addition to Oasis House and Be FREE Dayton are the New Abolitionist Student Movement, Start Freedom Dayton, Stop Human Trafficking Dayton, S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) and Abolition Ohio. These groups encompass all aspects of the trade from the traffickers and trafficked victims (supply) to the buyers (demand) to law enforcement and educators. Education, awareness, street outreach and rehabilitation are key elements of their organizations.

That movement from here and other cities around Ohio has made it to the statehouse. Until a couple of years ago, Ohio was considered one of the “Dirty Dozen” states by the anti-human trafficking organizations Polaris Project and Shared Hope International for its legislative response. An FBI agent in a panel discussion at Dayton’s Exchange Club said that many cases ended up getting processed as kidnapping, and sting operations didn’t work well because there was no crime without an exchange, which in that case was sex. Plus, there was no human trafficking charge – it was simply a specification that could be tacked on to several other felony charges for an increased sentence. These laws saw the victim as the perpetrator.

That changed with Senate Bill 235 (SB 235) and the Safe Harbor Law. Taking effect in March 2011, SB 235 created a second-degree felony of “compulsion to involuntary servitude.” It also increased compelling prostitution from a third degree felony for over 16-year-old victims and second-degree for victims under 16, to a second-degree felony if the victim is between 16 and 18, and a first-degree felony if the victim is under 16.

The same politician who sponsored that bill, Theresa Fedor, also fought for the Safe Harbor Law, which passed barely one year ago in June 2012 (one was in the Senate, the other was in the House). According to the AGHTC, one of the most important things the legislation, created by Attorney General Mike DeWine in August 2011, does is view the person being trafficked as a victim. It established a diversion program to help trafficked youth get social services and created the opportunity for adult victims to have their records expunged of prior charges of solicitation and prostitution that occurred during their enslavement. Victims are even allowed to file a civil lawsuit against their handlers.

On the law enforcement side, Safe Harbor made human traffic training a required part of the basic peace officer training curriculum. The law also requires officers to report data on human trafficking violations to the Attorney General’s office through the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. This year, the bureau started to track and compile the data to release an annual report. Talbott of Abolition Ohio said this has had the biggest local impact – increasing awareness and training among Miami Valley law enforcement and other key personnel.

Finally, Safe Harbor increased the penalty for human trafficking to a first-degree felony with a mandatory prison term of at least 10 years, and requires sex traffickers to register as sex offenders. The law even created a fund for victims of human trafficking, where seizures from traffickers will be deposited and used to provide assistance to the victims. Statewide, the harsher laws have been used so far in cases to prosecute men in Wood, Knox and Franklin Counties.

The AGHTC’s next goal is the passage of the End Demand Act. According to Director of Children’s Initiatives Melinda Haggerty in the Attorney General’s Office, its goal is to increase penalties for the buyers, by making it a third degree felony when a John solicits sex from a minor and making it easier to prosecute traffickers who target minor victims.

The problem of human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, is real in our corner of the world. It’s big. But it’s not hopeless.


Several people contributed research for this story, including Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin, Blake Eilers, Linda McNelly and Anthony Talbott.


Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at

Ways to Get Involved in the Fight

Abolition Ohio: works with law enforcement and government officials,

victim services and research 

Be FREE Dayton: Awareness programs for businesses such as tattoo shops and
hair salons, S.O.A.P. trainings (outreach to local hotels, bars and clubs), education and research

Oasis House: seeking donations of gently used women’s clothing,

volunteers to prepare hot meals and women mentors

Report possible human trafficking in your area: call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline toll free at 888.3737.888

Start Freedom Dayton: hosts awareness events such as movie screenings.

Like them on Facebook:

Stop Human Trafficking Dayton: street outreach, art therapy, Starfish program, awareness fundraisers


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Joyell Nevins
Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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