A Toledo professor, a retired FBI agent, a successful businessman, a former gang leader and the director of an intercessory prayer ministry joined forces Monday night (Feb. 4) to get churches more involved in fighting human trafficking.
Dr. Celia Williamson, a University of Toledo associate professor and a nationally known expert on trafficking, said she is planning a “30 churches in 30 days” campaign this year to address the topic that afflicts Toledo more than most cities.
Williamson told the group of about 40 meeting in the Greater Toledo House of Prayer that Toledo ranks fourth for human trafficking arrests and rescues among U.S. cities with task forces investigating that crime.
In a talk that lasted more than an hour, Williamson reviewed trafficking statistics on local, national and global levels and explained techniques traffickers use to recruit victims. She also gave tips on identifying possible victims, ways to report suspicious behavior (the national hotline is 800-373-7888), and how people can get involved in fighting the crime.
Bill Radcliffe, who retired after 29½ years in the FBI, said he was glad to have a “second chance” in retirement to help trafficking victims, citing regrets about cases he failed to pursue while on active duty.
Al Caperna, founder and chairman of Affirm Global Development and owner and chairman of CMC Group, called people to pray against trafficking and prodded those in the audience to volunteer in some capacity. Among the ideas proposed were organizing a benefit concert and an art show and pledging funds to a race car driver who is raising funds for The Daughter Project, a local nonprofit helping to rescue trafficking victims.
Willie Knighten, a former gang leader, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, only to be released 12 years later when the trial judge, Judge William Skow, wrote to the governor saying he believed his verdict was in error.
Knighten said vulnerable girls are attracted to drug dealers and pimps because “they have the money,” and said gang leaders and traffickers “break the girls’ self-esteem.”
Caperna said he knows churches can make a difference, citing a dramatic turnaround in an AIDS epidemic in Mozambique within 10 years because the nation’s pastors began speaking about the problem.
Williamson said a 15-minute version of the slide show she used to illustrate her talk is available for people willing to speak at churches, and promised to train volunteers to give talks.
She said a conservative estimate is that 12.3 million people worldwide are now victims of human trafficking; 100,000 U.S. youth are trafficked in the sex trade each year, including more than 1,000 in Ohio, and nearly 800 foreign victims are trafficked in Ohio annually.
Radcliffe said he regretted not doing more to stop trafficking when he was in the FBI. When he investigated organized crime and gambling in Toledo, for example, the department arrested mobsters for drugs and violence, but never for prostitution, even though gangsters offered young girls to gamblers to distract them during rigged games.
“We prosecuted the mob leaders. We prosecuted the leg-breakers. But nobody asked about the young girls,” Radcliffe said.
He also was part of an investigation into forced prostitution at Asian massage parlors in Toledo about a dozen years ago. Just as the task force was set to move, terrorists hit New York and Washington and agents were shifted to anti-terrorism duties.Most of the massage parlor investigation was dropped, Radcliffe said.
He said he is now looking for ways that retired agents can help law-enforcement officials investigate the 18,000 runaways in Ohio every year. Police don’t have sufficient manpower to track them but every city has retired agents who could assist the “overworked” departments, he said.
“This is the void that we’re attempting to see if we can fill,” he said, “but we have to do it in a legal manner or else we are nothing more than vigilantes.”
Williamson said that when she first started studying human trafficking in 1993, there wasn’t even a term for the problem. But public awareness has been rising, law-enforcement has become more skilled at investigating, new laws have been passed against trafficking and helping victims, and a number of churches and nonprofit groups in Ohio have gotten involved in fighting trafficking and rescuing victims.
Williamson said one reason Toledo has a “black eye” for ranking fourth in human trafficking arrests is because the city is doing something about it. The crime occurs everywhere but it is often ignored by law enforcement and the public, she said.
“We’re talking about and we’re going to keep talking about it,” Williamson vowed, adding that 99 victims have been rescued locally.
And she wants the talks to carry over into churches. “If we can educate 30 churches in 30 days, we can educate the people,” she said. “Daughters will become aware and sons will become defenders.”