A central Ohio church is offering an opportunity to learn about human trafficking and ways to help prevent children from becoming victims.
A program called Columbus Eyes Wide Open is scheduled for 9 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, at New Life Church, 3690 N. Stygler Road in Gahanna.
"Our goal is to educate and spread awareness of what human trafficking is and how we can protect our children," said Lisa Ernst, event coordinator. "Our desire is to open the eyes of the public."
Annually, an estimated 100,000 children in the United States are victimized by the commercial sex industry, according to to the Rescue and Restore Coalition of Central Ohio.
Statistics from the Ohio Attorney General's Office estimate 1,078 Ohio youths are recruited and trafficked every year.
The free informational session is meant to raise awareness of the dangers children face and to provide adults with practical ways to protect them.
A guest speaker will be Franklin County Municipal Judge Paul Herbert, who established a specialty-docket court called Changing Actions To Change Habits (CATCH), a two-year program that gives women a path to exit prostitution, placing them in safe houses and into long-term drug- and alcohol-treatment programs.
Another guest speaker will be Megan Crawford, executive director of Gracehaven, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to care for sexually exploited children by providing comprehensive client-centered services. Gracehaven was founded in 2008 to address the need for rehabilitation for victims of domestic minor sex trafficking.
Crawford has led support groups for sex-trafficking survivors, taught sex-trafficking prevention classes and led awareness and prevention educational training for high-risk children at the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center. She also has educated middle school and high school students about human trafficking and has led training sessions designed to teach social workers, lawyers, law-enforcement and health-care professionals and foster parents to better understand ways to identify the warning signs that a child is under the control of a trafficker, so they can connect victims with the services and support they need.
"Last year, Megan did a great job educating the audience on what to look out for, especially social media," Ernst said. "That is one of the ways these traffickers get to the kids."
She said the event also would include a segment about what people could do if they suspect a case of human trafficking.
Gov. John Kasich has unveiled plans for a statewide campaign to increase awareness of the problem. The plan includes placing posters at 14 service plazas along the Ohio Turnpike, listing the signs of human trafficking and contact information on how to report suspected cases. In addition, the Department of Public Safety will distribute 5,000 posters; the Department of Youth Services and Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will post materials in youth and adult prisons; the Department of Health has made materials available in all sexually transmitted disease clinics; and the State Library of Ohio will distribute posters to 732 libraries in the state.
The Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Ohio State Highway Patrol have taken public stances against human trafficking, and legislation introduced by state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) was co-signed by 90 other lawmakers. House Bill 130 would increase both the penalties for those convicted of human trafficking and protections for the victims.
To register for the Feb. 8 session, go to columbuseyeswideopen.com.
ThisWeek reporter Pamela Willis contributed to this story.