Despite a computer glitch or two, the "Break Every Chain" Human Trafficking Awareness Conference over the weekend drew Reynoldsburg students, residents, community leaders, state legislators and law enforcement.
The Jan. 11 event was coordinated by Reynoldsburg City Councilman Cornelius McGrady III and the Reynoldsburg Youth Human Trafficking Coalition (RYHTC).
Based on the number of information packets handed out, McGrady said at least 180 people attended.
Members of the student coalition said they wanted the conference to have an impact in their community.
"People need to know there is this underground crime and we need to bring the users to the forefront," Myles Stanley, junior at BELL Academy, said.
Imnet Arega, also a junior at BELL, said she wanted to educate herself and others about human trafficking.
"Most of us have heard of stranger dangers, but we need to tell people that this problem is not far away and could be in our community," she said.
Noel Boykin, freshman at eSTEM Academy, said she started out thinking human trafficking was not a local issue.
"I learned that it could be my friend or my cousin and that it could happen, even in my family," she said. "So I want to educate people so that we can stop this crime."
Ryan Owens, junior at Encore Academy, said the student group wants to make a difference by increasing awareness about human trafficking.
"If we let people know that this can happen to us and tell our friends about it, then it will be less likely to happen," he said.
Speakers at the Saturday conference included state Rep. Heather Bishoff (D-Blacklick); Claire Childers, legislative aide to state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo); and Ashley Wickerham, a master's candidate at the University of Toledo who is interning with the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition.
Bishoff said it is estimated that 27 million people could be currently enslaved in human trafficking all over the world.
"I wish I could tell you that there is a country immune to this, but it affects every country in the world," she said. "Isn't it appalling that after all these years, we are still talking about slavery?"
She said legislators are coming together to support laws such as that proposed in House Bill 130, to increase penalties on not only the people who force victims into human trafficking, but the people who buy sex acts from those victims.
"This is a war on our soil," she said. "We must engage and we must win."
A legal panel at the conference included Brent Currence, education and outreach coordinator for the Ohio Missing Persons Unit at the Ohio Attorney General's Office; FBI Special Agent Kristin Cadieux; Jennifer Thornton, community outreach coordinator with the U.S. Attorney's Office-Southern District of Ohio; Angela Canepa, assistant section chief for special prosecutions at the Ohio Attorney General's Office; and Cindy Peterman, deputy director of criminal intelligence and missing persons at the Ohio Missing Children's Clearinghouse.
A question-and-answer session was moderated by Lauren Nutter, the Anti-Human Trafficking case manager for the Salvation Army of Central Ohio.
Also represented were members of the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition (CORRC).
Although the conference began at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, Nutter had to finally end the question-and-answer session at 1:30 p.m. as more and more people came up to the microphones to ask questions or express their concern.
One woman wanted to know how she could help provide a safe house for victims.
The panel referred her to the Salvation Army and shelters such as Gracehaven for more information. Nutter said funding for safe houses is a problem.
Another woman asked how to keep young people from becoming victims.
"Show your children love and listen to them," survivor Barbara Freeman said. "Tell them they are beautiful and spend time with them and show them what healthy relationships look like."
According to CORRC, red flags to look for in young people who may be the victims of traffickers are: frequent school absences; displaying bruises, cuts or evidence of physical harm; seeing young people called over to cars or being followed by unfamiliar people; friends becoming distant or depressed; and suddenly possessing very expensive items.
More information is available on the CORRC website at centralohiorescueandrestore.org and on the Ohio Attorney General's Office website at Ohioattorneygeneral.gov/HumanTrafficking.