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Podcast: Human Trafficking is on the Rise in Rural America

Podcast featuring Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice an
Dr. Christi Bartman, Eyes Up Appalachia

Human trafficking can look a lot different than what most people expect, especially in rural areas.

In this podcast episode, AMU criminal justice professor Dr. Jarrod Sadulski talks to Dr. Christi Bartman about her work in rural Ohio to dispel myths and provide education, awareness, and resources about the reality of human trafficking. Learn about specific warning signs, what questions to ask, the type of resources human trafficking victims need, and much more.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Good morning everybody. My name is Dr. Jarrod Sadulski. Our guest today is Dr. Christi Bartman. Good morning.

Dr. Christi Bartman: Good morning.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Great. Well welcome. We’re glad that you’re here today. We’re here to talk about human trafficking, which is an issue worldwide. It’s $150 billion illicit industry throughout the world. And in particular, we’re going to talk about what’s going on in Ohio. And a lot of people probably aren’t aware that Ohio is ranked between fourth and fifth in the nation for human trafficking.

So we’re going to discuss that today. But before we get started, I’d like to share a little bit about Dr. Bartman’s background. Dr. Bartman worked for eight years with American Military University, was a program director of legal studies, public administration, and public policy. In addition, Dr. Bartman is a professor for Ohio State University and also is an educational and nonprofit consultant, and is also well-versed in human trafficking, in issues in human trafficking that exists in Ohio.

So as we get started, Ohio is a special interest to me. For the last two summers I participated in homeland security operations in the north coast of Ohio and in the western basin of Lake Erie. And I came to find that human trafficking is a much bigger issue than I realized in northern Ohio. I found that the corridor of I-75 coming between Detroit and Toledo, as well as the corridor from Cleveland to Toledo created a lot of challenges for law enforcement in terms of human trafficking.

And I was really, I was taken back and I was taken back to see how much of an issue actually exists in Ohio in human trafficking. So as we get started, Dr. Bartman, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Dr. Christi Bartman: I can. Thank you, Jarrod. One of the things that I’d like to highlight is the new initiative that I’m working on. It’s called, “Eyes Up Appalachia.” And within Ohio human trafficking is governed by coalitions so they’re loosely run out of the governor’s task force and office that the governor set up, Governor Kasich set up a number of years ago to oversee the human trafficking efforts at the larger state level. But the human trafficking coalitions are set up in counties and as a conglomerate of several counties or individual counties, because human trafficking is community-driven.

So what human trafficking looks like in Columbus is different than rural Ohio. And unfortunately within southeast Ohio and a few other Appalachian counties in the state, there are no coalitions to kind of oversee those efforts, coordinate those efforts, and work with the state to get resources down. So, Eyes Up Appalachia is something I’m working on to try to help move that along. And we’ll talk about that in a little bit, but that’s really what I’m focusing on right now.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent. It’s very important work. So how and when did you develop an interest in the field of human trafficking?

Dr. Christi Bartman: I lived up in the Toledo area for a while and I was teaching at Bowling Green State University and one of the students had an interest in a human trafficking topic and this was over a decade ago. And Ohio had just kind of come on the scene as one of the top areas, unfortunately, for trafficking and through a FBI bust for Operation Precious Cargo, Senator Fedor at the time and Cecilia Williamson, who now runs a human trafficking institute at the University of Toledo, started the efforts.

And so I reached out to them and they put me in touch with some of the law enforcement task force that had recently been formed. And they came in and talked to my students, and I just saw the need that, or had an interest in trying to help along with the need that they were identifying, because it was really at the beginning.

And so over the last decade, I’ve worked with Senator Fedor and others on human trafficking initiatives, as I’d worked those other jobs that you were laying out and the interest just kind of grew, but the other jobs also grew. So I really wasn’t having the time. I’d sat on a subcommittee for law and legislation. I had chaired Senator Fedor’s Human Trafficking Awareness Day at the State House for a few years. But decided then the last year to leave APUS and really focus on this full-time. And so that is where I’ve come in.

But to your comment, the transportation routes are key, it is a big part of why Ohio is in that high level of ranking on the national hotline calls. But also just to kind of give you a little bit of a gauge there, just because we’re fourth or fifth doesn’t necessarily mean we have the fourth or fifth highest human trafficking problem in the United States.

Part of that is because over that last decade, there has been a huge effort, especially northern and central Ohio in education and awareness of what human trafficking is. And so part of those calls definitely are community members calling in with information, with tips. They’re not all cases and trafficking victims called in. So just, when you see stats, and stats for human trafficking are kind of, they’re hard to come by at this point anyway, full stats. And so just, when you’re looking at that, keep that in mind as well.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Interesting. That’s a great point. And that’s a great point you mentioned Cecilia Williamson. So actually, I work with the International Human Trafficking Conference each year. I’ll actually be working with them on September 21st, a week away at their annual conference on human trafficking and I’ll be speaking there. So it’s interesting that you mentioned her because I’ve worked with her, her and her organization the last couple of years, it’s a small world.

So how has what you’ve seen in Ohio in terms of human trafficking relate to what we were talking about in my experience up there with dealing with the corridors and also I was dealing with some of the maritime issues that were going on with some of the Lake Erie islands and some of the potential issues going on in the islands in terms of human trafficking. How does that relate to your area of Ohio?

Dr. Christi Bartman: I think probably the most relevant is your comment on the surprise, your surprise at how, how prevalent it was. That is what I am seeing and most people are seeing throughout Ohio. Like I said, the stats, the law enforcement stats are not showing the depth of human trafficking in Ohio. And it is a surprise.

You were involved on the ground basis. Other people that are not necessarily as involved as you were in seeing it. It’s hard for them to believe at times. Right now there is a huge push for anti-human trafficking efforts and people very interested in it and looking at it as something they really want to get behind, but there is a whole group of people that really, they don’t see it, or they’re hearing these myths.

They think it’s only international, it’s “I don’t see a whole group of people coming in internationally and being trafficked.” And, “I don’t see this van coming up to Walmart and kidnapping girls.” A lot of the people are hearing those myths that that is what human trafficking is, but that is not the case. And we’ll talk a little bit about what actually it does look like in a few minutes.

But one of the things that differs in the rural area than what you probably saw in the islands is, unfortunately, it looks more like a family or a community-trafficking situation. In June, we just had an indictment for an individual down in Scioto County that had eight friends and family members that were recruiting young children. They were going out to the parents who needed drugs, they were offering the drugs to the parents and the parents in exchange were bringing their children to this man. And those were the type of things, unfortunately, that are more prevalent in the rural communities.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: And what I saw a lot was there was definitely a significance in Ohio for the sex trafficking trade over domestic servitude or even forced labor. And I agree, it’s everybody pictures human trafficking as the scary kidnapping in the van at Walmart, but really it’s coercion. You mentioned a great example in terms of people being coerced into providing their children to a predator.

But also from what I’ve seen is a lot of it’s the young 14, 15-year-old girl that is coming from a difficult background, perhaps a broken home and find somebody on the internet, they’re offering to provide the things that they’re lacking at home. And they end up becoming a statistic in terms of running away and joining with somebody that they think has their best interest in mind. When in fact, it’s that person’s intent to place them into the trafficking trade. Would you agree?

Dr. Christi Bartman: 100%, Jarrod. That is, you nailed it head on. That is exactly what we see happening. Particularly right now with COVID, with the internet being where people tend to stay these days, it’s even more prevalent than it was.

But you also mentioned runaways and unstable housing, unstable upbringing, individuals within that age group that are looking for somebody to make them feel wanted and loved. And exactly what you said, it goes south pretty quick.

But the grooming is, I mean it’s very intentional and they are very good at it. And these girls will be, and you’re right about the sex trafficking, it’s much more prevalent than the labor trafficking right now, at least from what we’re seeing. I don’t think we’ve given enough attention to labor trafficking and a lot of the folks in Ohio are trying to do that more so now. But those vulnerabilities are there. And with a number of others, when you’re ready I’d like to talk a little bit more about those vulnerabilities.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Sure, absolutely. And I think it’s also important to note that parents really have an important opportunity and really in my opinion, obligation to get to know social media I think, in terms of grooming.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on TikTok and on some of the other popular social media platforms, Snapchat, things like this. And I found that they really can be a breeding ground for grooming and human trafficking.

That as a father of two daughters myself, that I’m making myself aware of, and I hope that other parents are really engaging with their children in terms of the dangers of the internet. So can you provide more of an overview of your initiative in rural Ohio?

Dr. Christi Bartman: What I’ve done is, because there are a lack of coalitions down in that area I set out to do a study, an Appalachian Regional Commission-funded study on exactly what was there and what the gaps were, so that we could be able to better fill them.

And so, as I did that study, it became apparent that there were other coalitions in that area that were made up of the same type of individuals and agencies that make up an anti-human trafficking coalition, but they were focused on something else. So an opioid coalition, a suicide prevention coalition, prevention and recovery coalitions, and others that are actually in place that have all those local involvement of law enforcement, he service agencies, mental health, the churches, the courts, the hospitals. All those that come into an anti-human trafficking coalition were already in place in a number of those counties.

And so it made more sense to create an initiative to help funnel those resources from the state and other coalitions that are out there doing a really great job and have been doing it for years, down to those areas that are just getting started or having one or two individuals that really want to champion it locally.

Because the other part of what I found was that within rural Ohio, there is a need for trust. It really is not the right answer for the state to come down and say, “Here’s how you do something.” It really needs to come locally.

And what I’m finding, dealing with working with a number of different coalitions down there that are already in place, is that they do have those local individuals that are very interested. It is just a matter of getting down there, working with them.

In fact, I was just on a call yesterday and Gallia CPR is going to create a subcommittee of their current coalition that’s going to focus on human trafficking. And that is exactly the model that I think is probably the best model for rural counties at this point.

And so my initiative is going to not only help identify those individuals and help set them up with state agencies with hopefully find some funding for them, help them with their communication strategies and getting the right word out. Because like you said earlier, there are a lot of myths out there. And we need to make sure we counter some of the negative social media with the positive and the correct social media to really get that going.

And part of the other thing that my initiative will do is not only education and awareness, but also prevention. So when we talk about rural Ohio, we’re talking Appalachian, Ohio. We’re talking high poverty, drug use, lack of education opportunities for a lot of the population, lack of broadband. I mean, there are a number of vulnerabilities that really kind of coalesce down in that area.

And in order to help on the prevention side, we need to get into the schools. We need to work with those service agencies that are already serving those vulnerable populations through the homeless shelters, through the food kitchens, pantries, and others, and team up with some efforts. And so that is what I plan to do, more of an education awareness within Appalachian, Ohio and work with the local individuals and pair them with the resources that we can find.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: As we continue, what are some of the best ways to address human trafficking folks may not be aware of?

Dr. Christi Bartman: Okay, thanks, Jarrod. To build on what we were talking about as we left the last section, substance abuse, substance use is one of the highest vulnerabilities when you talk to the victims and you talk to the people that actually work with the victims, you find that probably 80, between 80% and 90% have substance abuse issues of some type.

And unfortunately, number one, that makes them vulnerable if they have those issues prior to being groomed and recruited. But number two, it’s another way for the person, the trafficker that is grooming them to pull them in and keep them indebted to them for the supply of drugs. So it’s huge.

The runaway population is a big one, that is one that is very vulnerable. The homeless youth are very vulnerable. You talk to a number of the shelter managers, and they talk about the recruitment within the shelters.

People coming in and looking for individuals within those shelters to traffic. Recent migration or relocation is one, particularly if you talk about labor trafficking. Unstable housing, unstable family situation, mental health concerns are big ones.

But rural, in the rural setting, it changes a little bit and becomes a little more based on the geography. The geographical separation is a hard one. And we talked just a little bit about the online grooming before, and that is so prevalent now. But one of the ways that people were able to see this and at least alert authorities were teachers in class or counselors. And so they would come in or they would notice something and they would alert authorities or talk to the individuals that they needed to bring in, the counselors, to maybe get a little bit more information.

And a lot of that unfortunately is the kid. Particularly if you talk kids, almost no juvenile will tell you they are being trafficked. That is not a term that they’re familiar with and that is not a concept. They don’t see themselves necessarily as a victim. They have a great deal of shame, particularly if it has to do with a family member or a community member or a church member.

They don’t understand what trafficking is. So if you ask the question in that, “Have you been trafficked?” They’ll say, “No.” Because sometimes they feel like they did it themselves. They chose to do this. But if you ask the question, “Have you exchanged sex for anything of value, such as drugs or rent?” That is going to elicit a different response.

And those are the type of questions and things that we’re hoping to train, not only the teachers and the counselors on, but the people in emergency rooms. Talking to some of the different folks that the nurses and doctors within the emergency room setting, they are trying to figure it out too.

They’ll see an individual come in for a stomach ache, and then they’ll see an individual come in for a broken arm, and then they’ll see an individual come in for something else. And finally it’s identified that that individual is being trafficked.

But those individuals also need to understand what to ask. And sometimes in rural communities, that word hasn’t gotten out yet. So the lack of understanding of medical law enforcement or court personnel as to exactly what it looks like, because it’s not in your face. And it comes in looking like different things. It comes in looking like sexual abuse. It comes in looking like prostitution or drug use and so you have to get into it a little more to really kind of see. Some of the other vulnerabilities in rural America, in rural Ohio, lack of economic opportunities, poverty.

The poverty rates, if you overlay a map of poverty, the poverty maps of Appalachian Ohio, on top of the opioid use in Appalachian Ohio, on top of the lack of educational opportunities and degree holding individuals in Appalachian Ohio, it is all right there. It is the, they just overlay, unfortunately, so perfectly.

All those vulnerabilities are in the highest degrees in Ohio within that area. And so, you’ll see another vulnerability, so it’s the drug abuse, it’s the poverty, it’s also cultural beliefs. So if you have a stronger dependence on the male spouse as the bread winner and the female spouse in this instance, in this example, is the one staying home. So they start to be completely dependent on that other individual. They may or may not have a car, they may or may not have their own money. There’s a lack of adequate services.

Part of that study that I did for ARC [Appalachian Regional Commission] I looked at mapping the different services and where they were. And there are very few if any detox facilities, there are very few if any transitional housing facilities, crisis lines.

And so the transitional housing is so important because once you get somebody out of that situation, it takes years. If they’ve been trafficked for, basically any length of time, but a lot of the times you’ll find that they’ve been trafficked for years, since they were very young.

And the psychological impact is huge. And it’s a complex trauma that needs not just a 90-day program and put them back into the community. It’s so hard to go back into where you came from and not revert right back to use of drugs, to going back to the same friends, so it’s very difficult.

And a lot of those services are not available. There’s limited transportation. Talking to some of the folks that work with the individuals that are being trafficked, maybe there’s a place in Cleveland, which is across the state, but they don’t have transportation to get there.

Or maybe a sexual assault nurse is based in, say, Athens, but there, which is south of Columbus, but they’re even further south of that and the sexual assault nurse only works 9-5. And how are they going to get there? If they want a sexual assault nurse over 24 hours, they have to go to Columbus.

And that’s hours of transportation, that’s hours of driving and it’s just not available. So, that’s another big thing. Those are really kind of the biggest vulnerabilities that are there. And I can tell you more about warning signs as well. If you want to talk about that.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Yes, please.

Dr. Christi Bartman: We talked a lot about sex trafficking, so I’ll go over that. But then we’ll talk a little bit about labor trafficking too, because I do want to make sure everybody understands that is happening.

Sex trafficking is the most prolific, and it certainly has gotten the most attention. But basically, so if somebody comes into a counselor’s office or into the emergency room or somewhere else, and appears submissive, nervous or scared.

If the school resource officer is talking to them and they have an inconsistent story about a relationship, particularly a younger girl with older man or a living situation that’s kind of sketchy, or it keeps changing. Doesn’t control any identification documents or their own money. Is inappropriately dressed for the weather or their age.

Is in the presence of a controlling male or female. So sometimes I’ve heard from not only emergency room personnel, but also people in nail salons and beauty parlors that’ll say, “This man brought this woman in and he did all the talking. She didn’t really speak.” And they wouldn’t leave them alone, like in an emergency room situation. A lot of the time the nurses are skilled at trying to separate that individual so that they can actually ask some questions.

But the controlling individual, it doesn’t always have to be a male, it can definitely be a female. We’ve seen it down in southern Ohio. We’ve seen it across the United States where females are used by the trafficker to recruit other females. Unfortunately, that is not unusual.

Signs of mental, physical, or emotional abuse, acting out. A lot of the times school counselors this’ll come up there, there’s a behavior that isn’t in itself indicative of being trafficked but when you ask the questions, you start to ask, “Why are you acting out?” But, “What circumstances make you feel this way?” Something to approach it a different way. And a lot of the time you’ll get a better answer.

They’re not able to come and go when they want. In possession of multiple key cards, prepaid cells, things like that. So those are some of the warning signals for sex trafficking.

But labor trafficking, we had a big case in Ohio that was a big task force FBI bust called, The Trillium Egg Farm Case. And this was in Lima, Ohio, another rural farming area. And so, an individual that was providing labor for this egg farm had gone to Guatemala and recruited individuals, young men, to come to the United States. And the promise was they would get a better education, they would get money, they could send it back. But they took their parents deeds to their parents’ property for that.

And then the individuals got over here, they weren’t given their documents, they were only on a specific visa and if they violate it then they were threatened. So if you violate this visa, then you’re illegal. You’ll be arrested, you’ll be deported, your family, they threatened the family.

These individuals threatened the individual’s families back home, not only to take their house, but physical threats as well. And these individuals, this was men in these, boys and men in this situation, weren’t allowed to travel on their own. They always traveled in groups, they were always ushered around, they lived in squalor. The housing had no electricity. I’m not, I can’t remember, I don’t believe it had plumbing either. They worked crazy long hours and it was, I mean, it was unfortunately, just a stereotypical labor trafficking situation.

But some of the vulnerabilities that come out of a labor trafficking situation, the individual appears to live were employed. They’re transported in a group by an employer. Their movement is severely restricted. They don’t control their identification documents and that’s a big one here. They earned below minimum wage. They’re indebted to their employer. So they’re brought over and then all the documents are taken and say, “Oh yeah, by the way, you owe me $20,000, you have to work it off.” Or something like that.

There’s often signs of physical abuse, isolation, malnutrition, and poor conditions where they are. And it’s not only farm labor, agriculture, but it’s also domestic service. So bringing in somebody to work in the house long hours and not providing adequate pay and adequate time and everything else.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: It’s a sad situation, but it’s so important that the public becomes aware of these warning signs, of these vulnerabilities and indicators. Those are some great points. So in terms of victims, once a victim’s identified, what are some of the needs of human trafficking victims? You had mentioned that it’s very difficult to get out of that life. But what are some of the needs and how can those needs be met?

Dr. Christi Bartman: Oh, it’s so hard. And I’ve learned a lot, Jarrod. I got to say, when I came into this coming specifically out of the law and policy side, I’m like, “Well, okay, we’ll fix this. We’ll find these individuals and we’ll get them into the right programs and they’ll want to come out of here and have a better life.”

And I unfortunately, was wrong. Was so wrong. It is so not that easy. And it is so gray, it is not black and white at all. Right now, when you talk to individuals that are direct service providers, which I am not, they will tell you that it takes a number of different times to touch this individual and be there for this individual and develop trust from this individual to get them out of that life.

Particularly, so we’ll use sex trafficking as an example, if somebody is on the street prostituting, chances are good if you ask the right questions, they are being coerced. As you said, fraud, force or coercion are the elements that you need to show for human trafficking for an adult victim. And you will find, in fact, we have what’s called a CATCH Court in Columbus, Ohio, C-A-T-C-H, change actions to change habits.

And the judge there, Judge Paul Herbert, about 10 years ago, again, this all kind of started then. Started to see the same people come through his court through the muni-court there that he was a judge, and he started to identify them as victims instead of criminals and so he developed this program.

And what he found and what others find is that they are being coerced. And so if you see somebody, if you’re working with somebody on the street maybe your first attempt is to provide them clean needles or a needle exchange or Naloxone or something like that.

But slowly, but surely, as you earn the trust, help, be out there for them, they’ll start asking, hopefully, for other resources. And you can always make sure those are provided, available. “Can we get you into a program? Can we get you?” But you’re walking that walk with them. You’re not rescuing them.

I guess that’s one of the things that, right now the philosophies have changed and rescue is not the term used anymore. It’s more walking along with them to provide the opportunities for that individual to make a decision to get help. And once they do make that decision, kind of back to your original question, the things they need help with. Legal services, a lot of the time they have done crimes as a result of this trafficking and they need to be addressed, but possibly in a different manner noting that they were a victim or they were coerced into this. So they need legal help.

They need possibly to get their license back. They’ve probably lost their license along the way. They’ve had evictions along the way. So as you’re trying to find housing for these individuals, along with all the other vulnerable populations, unfortunately, that are looking for housing right now. There’s not enough, A. There’s not affordable, B. It’s not in the right places, C.

So, and part of what this group needs is that transitional housing. So they need an emergency crisis setup, and then they need the transitional housing, which could be up to a two year, around a two year period where that transitional housing provides all the wraparound services. Like they bring in the mental health counseling, they bring in the employment counseling. So if you were trafficked since you were a younger child, or even a teenager, you don’t know how to balance a checkbook.

You don’t know exactly what good nutrition looks like. You don’t know how to write a resume and do a job interview. Those are not things you know. When you bring that all encompassing services in around that transitional housing, you’re there for that individual. And it’s hard because that’s, it’s not like everybody is saying, “Oh great, this is really helpful.” No, they may come in and out of there two or three or more times as they relapse or something happens and they don’t want to be there. They just decide that is not the way they’re going to go.

But all those services have to be available. Alcohol, AA, detox-type facilities and offerings, help with children. A lot of the times they have lost their children if it’s a female and she has a child. And so the children are in the system somewhere, in the welfare system. So getting clean and getting those children back is many times part of what they’re doing. And then to transition out into living independently and working independently is another, is part of that whole support network.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Well, this was definitely an enlightening discussion. I’ve definitely taken away a lot that has really helped me in gaining a deeper understanding of human trafficking. I am really grateful for your time and for sharing your expertise and your experience in this very important field. Are there any remaining thoughts that you wish to share with us?

Dr. Christi Bartman: One of the things that this human trafficking ends up looking like is substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, intimidation, emotional abuse, those are the things that are going to be seen first. And I guess that probably I would just like to leave, just make sure if you start to see those type of things that you reach out to the individuals in your area that handle human trafficking. And if you need additional resources, make sure you reach out and that they’re there.

We have a national human hotline it’s, 888-3737-888. And there’s also a text: “be free”, B-E-F-R-E-E on the phone to reach that national human trafficking hotline and they will connect with local resources. So that is, that’s definitely out there and available.

Those are really the things. I appreciate the efforts that I’ve seen and the interest that I’ve seen and your interviewing me, thank you. The compassion that’s out there, the caring and concern.

And I think this is, we’re right at the point where we are at a spot where we can really do a lot with education and awareness to dispel a lot of the myths out there about human trafficking. And educate people on what it really looks like and how it really happens and how grooming really happens like you said earlier in the interview. Those are the types of things that I really would like to get out there and make known.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Well, thank you for sharing those resources as well. Those are great points. Well, I want to thank our guest, Dr. Christi Bartman, and I really appreciate your time today. Thank you.

Dr. Christi Bartman: Thank you, Jarrod.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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