CFAES Give Today

Ohio State University Extension


Human Trafficking: Know the Signs of this Hidden Crime

James S. Bates, Assistant Professor, Field Specialist, Family Wellness, Ohio State University Extension

Most Ohioans are familiar with highly visible human trafficking occurrences in the state. The stories of Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry, and Michelle Knight who were held captive in a Cleveland home for a decade is perhaps the most well-known. These women were subjected to ongoing sexual, psychological, physical and other abuses. The case of a woman with cognitive disabilities and her 5-year-old child in Ashland County is also well-known. They were enslaved in a home for two years and were forced to do domestic labor, slept in a padlocked room, and were threatened with dogs and snakes if they did not comply with their captors’ orders.

While it is fortunate for the victims that these cases have been brought to light, other situations have not because human trafficking is a hidden crime. It is not only present in large metropolitan centers but also in small rural towns. This fact sheet will explore the signs of human trafficking and how it can be stopped.

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking involves sex trafficking, labor trafficking, organ trafficking, child trafficking for labor/sex, and is defined in federal law as a type of slavery. Often, sex trafficking is associated with illicit drug use.

How does human trafficking start?

There are many pathways into human trafficking. Traffickers, however, commonly use violence, threats, debt bondage, and other forms of deceit and coercion to compel adults and children into servitude. For instance, an employer seeking to hire undocumented immigrant laborers may promise good pay for seemingly safe and legitimate work but the worker soon learns that the actual pay, work situation, and working conditions are not what was promised. Attempts to leave the situation are met with threats and coercion. The worker is victimized by the employer and told that they cannot leave because they would be picked up by law enforcement for being undocumented. Thus, the worker is intimidated into conforming and staying on.

Law enforcement has begun treating prostitution arrests as possible sex trafficking situations. Ohio is fortunate in that Columbus is home to one of only a handful of sex trafficking courts in the United States. The court is led by Judge Paul M. Herbert, of the Franklin County Municipal Court, who works with women willing to become part of his program called CATCH Court. This program helps these women begin a new life free from sex trafficking.

Paraphrased here is his description of a common scenario of how many of the women who have come through his court become enslaved in trafficking. First, a young girl is molested between 8 and 10 years old, and because she knows it is wrong, she will go to her mother and tell her that her stepfather, her mother’s boyfriend, or a relative is abusing her. Her mother does not believe her, does nothing, and the abuse continues. The girl begins acting out at home and at school, and gets labeled as a bad kid. Eventually, she runs away from home, gets brought back, runs away again, and gets brought back. Finally, she may end up in foster care, and then eventually ends up with a drug dealer or a pimp at age 12 or 13. This man finds her hanging out at a shopping center or at a mall, or just walking around town trying to escape the situation at home. He pretends to love her and care about her but will then psychologically, physically and sexually abuse her and ultimately isolate her. He gives her drugs and makes her become dependent upon them and upon him to get her the drugs. The girl is forced into doing sexual work for his drug clientele as a bonus for purchasing drugs from him. This enslavement can go on for decades (Interview conducted by the author on June 14, 2013).

What are Ohio’s statistics?

According to the Ohio Attorney General’s (OAG) office, it is “estimated that 1078 Ohio children are sex trafficked every year.” An OAG study found that it is primarily preteens and teens who are sex trafficked and indicated that “13 years old is the most common [median] age in Ohio for youth to become victims of child sex trafficking.” Of the study’s sample of 207 individuals, 49% were under the age of 18 when they were first trafficked. In addition, 91% of female victims experienced abuse in the home they grew up in, 77% of female victims trafficked as a teen transitioned into adult prostitution, and 64% lived in a home where one or both parents abused drugs. Mirroring Judge Herbert’s comments, the study also found that children who were sexually abused were at higher risk for running away from home and becoming trapped in a trafficking situation.

What are the warning signs of human trafficking?

Being aware of the warning signs of human trafficking is the first step in ending the trends. A national organization called The Polaris Project located in Washington, D.C., has compiled a list of the warning signs of human trafficking:

  • Poor mental health or abnormal behavior
    • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense or nervous/paranoid
    • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
    • Avoids eye contact
  • Poor physical health
    • Lacks health care
    • Appears malnourished
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

The Ohio Attorney General’s office has also compiled a list of the indications that labor trafficking may be occurring:

  • Sleeping bags are visible, possibly indicating that employees are living in the same place where they work and that backrooms appear to be living spaces.
  • Workers are driven to their employment in groups all at once.
  • When a worker answers casual questions, their answers seem scripted or rehearsed.
  • Workers may appear exceptionally young and are fearful or particularly submissive.
  • Small children are serving in a family restaurant.
  • Security measures are in place that appear to keep people inside an establishment (i.e., barbed wire inside of a fence, bars covering the insides of windows).
  • People are not being allowed to go into public alone or speak for themselves.

How can you help?

You can take other steps to address the roots of the problem and build awareness of this problem in your community:

  1. Promote healthy intimate relationships and stronger marriages and families. This means taking a preventative approach to family life education. Help reduce the culture of pornography that adults and children are exposed to on TV, the Internet, and via computers, tablet, and other handheld electronic devices. Doing so will reduce the sexualized culture that implicitly normalizes sexual aberrations.
  2. Work to eliminate teen-to-teen sexual violence, harassment, bullying and coercion. Teach youth healthy relationship development skills. Such skills will help youth know acceptable relationship boundaries and when a relationship is unhealthy and destructive.
  3. Help parents understand the signs of abuse. Parents should make adolescent children aware of the issue according to their child’s ability to understand.
  4. At school, teachers, counselors and administrators should be vigilant to the changes in a student’s behavior and grades and make parents aware of these changes. Schools can initiate a campaign against bullying, coercion and sexual harassment and teach youth healthy relationship development skills. Such skills will help youth know appropriate relationship boundaries and when a relationship is unhealthy and destructive.
  5. Community leaders and organizations should advocate for women, children and teens. Involve local law enforcement in this effort as well as educating travelers at freeway rest stops to be vigilant about human trafficking that occurs in these locales.
  6. While human trafficking (especially sex trafficking) primarily affects women, it is important to remember that there are many male victims.


You can report human trafficking to:

  • BCI at 855-BCI-OHIO (224-6446).
  • National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888, text “BeFree” (233733).

Information and referrals

You can find more information about human trafficking at the following resources:


  1. OAG, 2013. Ohio Human Trafficking. Retrieved August 2, 2023 from
  2. OAG, 2013. Retrieved June 2013 from
  3. The Polaris Project.
Originally posted Jun 15, 2016.