Anti-human trafficking conference sheds light on dark reality

Dylan Reynolds

Human trafficking is more common than most realize, and everyone is responsible for educating themselves to spot potential trafficking situations.

That was the message conveyed by keynote speaker Susan Laird at the Anti-Human Trafficking Conference Tuesday morning.

The conference was attended mainly by hospitality management students, but was open to the public. The College of Architecture and Environmental Design lecture hall was nearly full when the keynote began.

Human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery, involves transporting people and selling them for forced sex or labor work. Ohio ranks fifth in the nation in human trafficking.

Laird, the executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition Against Human Trafficking, spoke about the magnitude of human trafficking in Ohio and possible solutions to the problem. She said everyone should be on the lookout for trafficked individuals, even in unexpected places.

“If you see something, say something,” she repeated several times. “In the United States, the number one entity that traffics for sex is family. Let me say it again: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters.”

Laird discussed federal laws designed to prevent sex trade, including the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, introduced by Sen. Rob Portman in August. That bill would make websites liable for enabling human traffickers.

One such website is a website called “BackPage,” a classified advertising site where traffickers often promote their victims’ services.

“Nobody anticipated that we would sell human beings on the web, but that’s what we do,” Laird said.

For the hospitality management students at the conference, Laird emphasized the importance of knowing the “red flags,” because traffickers often take their victims to hotels.

She identified signs of physical abuse, tattoos of names or barcodes and a fearful demeanor as major red flags. Recently, a hotel clerk in North Olmsted recognized signs of trafficking in his workplace, and he called police.

“Do your due diligence as a citizen,” Laird said.

After her presentation, three panelists joined Laird onstage to answer questions from a moderator and the audience. The panel included Halle Kelly, a local caseworker; Marilyn Raux, a mentor for trafficked women; and Kristi Moncier, a survivor of sex trade.

An audience member asked Moncier about her experience, prompting her to tell the emotional story of her life as a trafficked individual.

“When it began for me, it involved a boyfriend,” Moncier said. “Drugs were involved. (They) start to overtake you at some point. And you begin to do anything you can to make yourself feel better. Heroin is awful.”

Moncier said her life changed when she entered rehab and found a supportive community.

“People would rather turn a blind eye to it,” she said. “These girls, or these boys, they’re trapped. They’re scared for their lives. They’re caught up in their fear and it’s hard for them to take a step when they don’t trust nobody. I can say today, with the grace of God, that He put people in my life to help get me out of that. He put rehab in my life.”

Moncier has been sober for more than two years, lives independently, and works two jobs.

Following the panel discussion, attendees had the option of going to a breakout session, where directors of local anti-human trafficking organizations spoke about their causes.

Anyone considering getting involved can contact those organizations: The Haven of Portage County, RAHAB Ministries, Alleanza Tesori Raggianti, and the Northeast Ohio Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Dylan Reynolds is the business and neighborhood reporter. Contact him at [email protected]