Soap spreads the word on human trafficking

Ohioan focuses on awareness at Super Bowl and other big events.

Five years ago Theresa Flores, a Columbus area woman who escaped human trafficking, founded Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution — SOAP. Flores and a brigade of volunteers distribute bars of soap, educational material and up-to-date missing children posters at hotels in cities that are hosting major sporting events and conventions.

“We have been to everything from (March Madness) First Four to Final Four, to Super Bowls and National Republican Conventions and concerts. There was a concert in Troy, Ohio, that we had people give soap out at,” she said. “Generally, we have from 80 percent to 100 percent of all the hotels that we approach take soap and 100 percent take educational information and missing children posters.”

Flores plans to distribute labeled soap to hotels during the 2016 RNC convention in Cleveland, the 2015 MLB All Star Game in Cincinnati, the 2015 Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus and the 2015 First Four in Dayton.

Flores said tips to the national hotline spike when her volunteers are deployed in a city. Each year, 200,000 volunteers, most of them locally based, help label and distribute the tiny bars of soap.

“Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you been threatened if you try to leave? Have you witnessed young girls being prostituted? If so, please call 1-888-3737-888,” the red labels say.

Flores said forced prostitution increases when cities host major events and the number of girls advertised on online sites spikes.

The soap distribution is an example of how Ohio is trying to combat human trafficking. In Ohio, roughly 1,000 youths are recruited into prostitution and 700 foreign victims are forced into labor or the sex trade each year, according to Ashley Wickerham of the University of Toledo Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute.

A report released Monday by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine shows there is increased awareness and reporting of human trafficking across the state. A law passed in 2012 requires local law enforcement to report human trafficking case information to DeWine’s office.

Statistics reported Monday show that in 2014 law enforcement agencies investigated 85 suspected human trafficking cases, made 98 arrests that led to 17 convictions, and identified 181 victims, 113 traffickers and 68 johns. Officers reported that the most common risk factor was drug and alcohol dependency followed by youths who run away and become homeless.

In the July 2012 to June 2013 reporting period, Ohio recorded 92 arrests for promoting prostitution and 33 arrests for compelling prostitution. During the same period, law enforcement reported 30 human trafficking investigations and 21 traffickers that resulted in 15 arrests and 17 prosecutions.

Ohio has adopted stricter laws and penalties against human trafficking, and state officials are shifting the focus from treating minors in prostitution as criminals to seeing them as victims.

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