COLUMBUS, Ohio — More than 200 victims of human trafficking including a few girls younger than 13 were identified by Ohio investigators last year, according to an annual report released Monday by the Attorney General’s office.
In one case, owners of several central Ohio massage parlors were accused of bringing women from China with promises of jobs and forcing them to work as prostitutes.
In another, a northeastern Ohio man was sentenced to nearly 30 years in federal prison for keeping a 17-year-old girl in a motel room in Westerville in suburban Columbus and taking sexually explicit pictures of her to post on the Internet.
Nearly all the 203 trafficking victims were young women, most in their 20s or 30s, the report said. But nearly two dozen were 14 or 15 years old and three were 12 or younger.
Investigators also targeted 130 suspected traffickers and nearly 200 buyers of sex. The people buying sex appear to be all men; 160 were identified as men, with the gender not listed for the remainder and no women identified, according to the report by the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission.
Victims of human trafficking are often forced into the sex trade or pushed to work against their will in sweatshop-type jobs.
Concern about human trafficking has grown in Ohio and nationally in recent years, making it difficult to say whether the problem is better or worse than in the past.
For example, an annual legislative awareness day organized by state Rep. Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat, scarcely filled a committee hearing room a few years ago. The latest event earlier this month brought hundreds of people to Columbus.
Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine convened the commission in 2011. It works to strengthen protections for victims, toughen penalties for traffickers, and educate Ohioans about the problem and how they can help.
One challenge police face is that many trafficked women don’t see themselves as victims or don’t want to leave their situation, regardless of how bad it is, officials said at a commission meeting Monday.
Human trafficking is also harder to identify than obvious crimes like burglaries or muggings, DeWine said.
“Trafficking is in front of us, but many times we do not understand that or recognize it,” he said.
Among other highlights of the report:
— Law enforcement agencies conducted more than 100 human trafficking investigations leading to more than 100 arrests and 33 convictions.
— A newly formed human trafficking task force in Cincinnati referred 67 potential victims to social services, rescued five potential victims, and received and processed nearly three dozen tips about human trafficking.
— A task force committee is preparing “a human trafficking education and awareness plan” for the Cleveland area ahead of this summer’s National Republican Convention.
“What police have found is that any time you have a national event with a whole bunch of people coming in, there’s human trafficking,” DeWine said.