GREENVILLE — Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Combating Human Trafficking and Online Child Exploitation in the United States, taking a much-needed step in dealing with a growing problem within the country and throughout the Midwest region — including Ohio.
Human trafficking is the illegal trade of human beings for the purpose of reproductive slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, and forced labor. Unfortunately, Ohio is considered by many professionals as a major hub for human trafficking, as its urban centers are close to major highways, providing an ease of access for traffickers to evade the efforts of law enforcement.
Although rural and picturesque, Darke County sits between some of Ohio’s most heavily trafficked areas to the north, east, and south. In 2018, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Ohio has ranked fourth out of all 50 states in the total number of reported human trafficking cases. Between 2007 and 2016, four Ohio cities were named in the top 25 for highest number of cumulative reported cases of human trafficking, including Columbus (9), Cincinnati (17) Toledo (18) and Cleveland (22). Among the 88 counties throughout Ohio, 24 have little to no human trafficking training or access to victim services.
With this in mind, one Arcanum mom is on a mission to better educate Darke County residents about the dangers associated with human trafficking in the region.
Shannon Denniston, a Damsel in Defense Pro and mother of three, has taken the initiative to develop a two-hour “Warrior Workshop” for young adults, ages 12 to 18, which addresses the importance of personal, social media, and internet safety; how to protect oneself in a life-threatening situation; and where to go for help and support in the aftermath of an attack, assault or abduction.
Damsels in Defense, a maker of personal protection devices for women and youth, has a passion for encouraging its sales reps — called “Pros” — to become more involved in community consciousness-raising efforts about human trafficking.
“I have three kids and I refuse to allow them to be statistics. My purpose as a mom is to protect my children at all cost and if Damsel in Defense can help me with that, then that is a plus!” Denniston said.
“In the past year, there have been some events that have taken place in my children’s life that could have gone very wrong. “ Denniston explained, “As a mom I felt that something positive needed to be done so other parents wouldn’t have to go through the same thing I have… parents needed another resource to help bridge the communication gap with their teen, to better educate them on some serious subjects that may not be available anywhere else.”
Working with the Darke County Sheriff’s Department and Darke County Recovery Services, she hopes to focus on the top safety priority of area teens who may naively think that they are immune to the tactics used by human traffickers.
“We live in a very rural area, where there is a strong sense of security. said Denniston. “However, if you drive 20 minutes south — to Dayton — you are in the center of a huge human trafficking hub. Ohio ranks fourth in the country in human trafficking and with the I-70/I-75 interchange so close, it is easy to be out of the state or into Canada in a few short hours from any direction from that interchange.”
The news of late is filled with stories of trafficking arrests in Ohio. On September 21, the U.S. Marshals Service for the Northern District of Ohio concluded Operation Safety Net by recovering 35 missing children, most of whom were juveniles from Cuyahoga County between the ages of 13 and 18. In Columbus on September 2, a Franklin County man was indicted on 19 felony counts, including manslaughter, human trafficking, compelling and promoting prostitution, and aggravated trafficking in drugs. In March 2020, the FBI Child Exploitation Task Force busted a Scioto County child trafficking ring, issuing multiple indictments on counts of human trafficking and child pornography.
These are a few among many instances exposed in the past year in the Buckeye State.
Denniston hopes the workshop will encourage teens and their parents to become more conscious of the many warning signs that human trafficking might be happening in a given area and the steps one can take to promote personal safety when alone or in a group.
“Always be aware of your surroundings,” advises Denniston. “Put your phones down and pay attention to what is going on around you. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t.”
Local authorities in Northeastern Ohio say that if a young adult goes missing or runs away from home, there is a 75 percent chance that he or she will encounter a human trafficker within 24 to 48 hours. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has put law enforcement on high alert to an increase in online threats which enable traffickers to gain access to potential victims through social media and other media platforms.
“Always have a plan for various situations and be ready for anything.” Denniston recommends. “If you are being followed in a store or parking lot, make noise and cause a scene. Bring awareness to the situation. And always keep an eye out for those moms with small children. They are often times preoccupied with their children to notice what could be happening around them.”
The Warrior Workshop will take place this Saturday, October 3 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, at the Radiant Lighthouse Center, 5256 Sebring Warner Road, Greenville.
If unable to attend this Saturday’s workshop, Denniston is hosting another session on Thursday, October 22 at 7 p.m., at the Darke County Makers Co-Op, 311 South Broadway, in Greenville. This class is open to the public, and costs $10 per person for the class.
“There are a lot of resources online. I am personally joined with The Damsel House Project, Destiny Rescue, Safe Hearts, and Operation Underground Railroad.” said Denniston. “I urge everyone to educate themselves on the dangers of human trafficking.”
For more information, or to become an event sponsor, contact Denniston at [email protected] or call 937-459-9368.