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RISE, Hope & Healing: Akron programs working to support survivors of human trafficking

Programs and resource centers in Northeast Ohio are providing help and education to survivors of human trafficking and the wider community.

AKRON, Ohio — In Akron Municipal Court, Judge Ron Cable is not just handing down sentences; he's also giving second chances. One of his specialty dockets is aiming to help those who may not have had a choice in ending up in court in the first place. 

"One is a program I have, RISE, it stands for restore individual self-empowerment, and it is a program for sex trafficking victims," he said.

RISE court started in 2018, meant to help victims of human trafficking create a new path forward. Judge Cable explained that RISE court participants often face charges related to being trafficked, such as prostitution, drug charges, or domestic violence.

"I think it's really a just cause. We have victims who have been trafficked, you know, right here in Akron, Ohio, and sometimes they end up in the court system because what they're doing is illegal," he said. "And when we find them, I really felt that that population is deserving, and they deserve a second chance in life. So I wanted to put together a holistic treatment plan for them. And for those who are ready, you know, to get out of that life and start a new life, we're certainly here to help them for the long term."

The two-year program works with community partners to provide participants with resources like safe housing, drug treatment and therapy. Upon graduation and completion of the program's requirements, participants can also have the trafficking-related charges expunged from their records. 

"It's a problem nationwide, but especially in Ohio," he said of trafficking. 

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, from 2016 through 2019, Ohio ranked among the top five states nationwide for the most human trafficking cases reported. 

"When people think about, you know, the words, human trafficking, they think about somebody being abducted from a public place and thrown in a car and driven across the country," he said. "And although that does happen, it's not real common."

Instead, Judge Cable said the people he sees who are trafficked are often trafficked by people they know, even those closest to them. 

"It's either a family member, you know, we've had uncles and fathers, and I mean, it is really sad," he said. "Other times, it could be a boyfriend, somebody that, you know, sees this individual and thinks, 'I'm really going to con them, you know, into thinking I care about them for the whole purpose of making a profit later off it later.'"

In Teresa Stafford's experience, survivors of human trafficking have often also experienced either sex abuse at an early age or experienced or been exposed to domestic violence. She noted that trafficking can also include forced labor.

"It's so important that we don't just have a cookie cutter approach in responding to human trafficking in our society," Stafford said. "We have to have a culturally responsive approach to responding and recognizing the cultural identities and the nuances along the lines of that and how our systems are responding to some survivors as a whole."

Stafford is the CEO of Hope & Healing Survivor Resource Center in Akron, which is the umbrella term for the Battered Women's Shelter and Rape Crisis Center of Summit and Medina Counties. The center provides services and programs for survivors of sexual assault, human trafficking, and people who have experienced intimate partner violence. 

The center's resources include hospital and law enforcement advocacy, counseling services and court advocacy, a shelter, as well as shelter and rape crisis hotlines. Stafford said these services are free and trauma-informed.

"The intersectionality of human trafficking with regards to race, gender identity and sexual orientation is something that is big in our society," she said. "I oftentimes see people from these marginalized identities when they are identified as trafficking, sometimes they're not seen as a victim, sometimes they're seen as a criminal."

Stafford said that anytime there are resources available to confront the problem, such as specialized dockets in court, it's an indication that the problem is ongoing. 

"They kind of call human trafficking that crime that happens right in front of your face, and you're not paying attention," Stafford said. 

Judge Cable and Stafford identified signs of trafficking as someone suddenly having access to phones, technology, jewelry, clothing or money they didn't previously have access to. If a young person is often truant, leaving home or seen as a "runaway," they may be involved in trafficking.

If someone is constantly accompanied by someone else, often an older male, who may speak on their behalf or seem controlling, that may also be a sign, according to Judge Cable. Additionally, if someone appears well put together or well groomed, but says they are homeless or jobless, that could indicate they're being trafficked. 

The signs started out subtly for a woman named Karla from northeast Ohio, whose identity we are protecting. She recounts her first marriage to a man named David, a few years older than her and someone she viewed as "sophisticated."

After three years of dating, she and David were married, living a life that, from the outside, seemed picture perfect. She was a model, beginning an international career, they lived in his lakefront condo, and he would constantly buy her gifts like high heels. 

"He loved his trophy wife. My nails were always done. In fact, he even made sure that the manicurist did them the way he liked them," Karla said. "We had a housekeeper for our condo even though it was just the two of us that we could keep up with, I was just spoiled completely, so I was so lucky, right?"

But while everyone was telling her she was "so lucky," Karla felt something was wrong. Looking back today, she recognizes the signs of grooming she experienced, as well as the physical abuse. She recalls one specific instance on a trip to California.

"I made him angry. I don't know what I asked him. He pulled over on the side of the highway and undid my seatbelt, opened my door and just pushed me out of the car. And I just fell, plop, on the side of some highway in San Diego," she said. "No idea where I am. One shoe, no purse, because I fought, and he sped off."

One day, she made an alarming discovery when she came across a briefcase belonging to David, tucked away and locked in their home. She was able to open it, and found magazines she had never seen before, which she described as containing "sexy" or "nude" photos. She was shocked to find photos of herself, private photos David had taken of her, staring back from those pages. 

Alongside her photos was information about her name, height, weight, an introduction and a phone number to call.

"I'm like, what the heck did I just find?," she said. "I finally got it, like OK, this is something dangerous, I'm in something - I don't even know what I'm in - am I in something? Am I for sale?" 

Luckily, Karla was able to get out of her marriage before she found out what would happen if someone called that number, ultimately getting a divorce and pursuing her modeling career on the other side of the globe. 

Today, she's in therapy and has used resources through Hope & Healing to work through the trauma of her marriage and the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. She is not a participant in RISE court. She's also using her own experience to help others, working with at-risk young women navigating a new set of challenges.

"If you have a phone in your hand, you are, you know - they have access to you, so you have to be smarter," she said, warning young people that it's hard to know who exactly is on the other end of the messages you're sending or apps you're interacting with.

"A lot of years were robbed from me, you know, and every human on this earth is worthy, and that there could be other women or young people out there thinking that they are not worthy of suffering in silence, just breaks my heart," she said. 

Karla, Stafford, and Judge Cable are all dedicated to helping those who have experienced trafficking, showing them that they are not alone. 

"It's not your fault. That shame and stigma that's attached to human trafficking, it doesn't belong to you. It belongs to the person that caused you harm, the person that's trafficking you in society," Stafford said. "We want you to know that we are here. We will remain here, and you can come to us today, tomorrow or later in the future and keep coming." 

Stafford also noted the need for society to hold those purchasing trafficking victims accountable, rather than just focusing on those who are doing the trafficking.

Judge Cable isn't giving up either, recognizing victims for who they truly are, fighters and survivors.

"The number one thing I probably wish for them is peace, just to have peace internally and, you know, to have some type of success in their life."

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking or in an at-risk situation, there are a number of resources available to help and receive more information. 

Below are links to additional local and national resources and databases:

EDITOR'S NOTE: The video above previously aired on 3News on Jan. 27, 2022.


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