The plight of human-trafficking victims in the Columbus area has improved significantly since the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition was formed a decade ago, says program Director Michelle Hannan.

But there's still much work to do to help people -- mostly women and young girls -- who fall prey to pimps, she added.

"As a community, we have made great, great strides in our ability to reach out and assist survivors," said Hannan, who also serves as director of professional and community services for the Salvation Army of Central Ohio. "We have a long, long way to go still."

"It's awful what these victims go through," said Columbus police Sgt. Mark Rapp, head of the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force. "Their lives are pretty much a mess by the time they come out of the other end of this."

Rapp was the guest speaker at the Oct. 17 meeting of a group of Block Watch coordinators in the Northland area. The Columbus Division of Police sponsors the task force.

"It's really important information," said officer Scott Clinger, one of the Columbus police precinct liaisons for the neighborhood. "It happens all the time, every day. No joke."

"It happens a lot in Columbus, Ohio," Rapp said, noting the state ranks fourth in the number of reported cases of human trafficking. "It's an issue that's been here for a very long time."

The task force, which was established in 2011 and is funded by the Ohio Attorney General's Office, is unique among such organizations in the state in that a victim advocate provided by the Rescue and Restore Coalition is embedded in the team, Rapp said. After a sting operation is conducted in a hotel room, for instance, the advocate is the second person to speak with the victim.

"That makes all the difference in the world," Hannan said.

"They think we're the bad guys when we show up," Rapp said. "They do not trust us."

At one time, these women and girls were treated as prostitutes, but now they are regarded as victims, he told Block Watch representatives. While most are arrested for prostitution, that's not intended as punishment, Rapp said.

"She needs to sit in jail and detox for a while," he said. "Without that, she's going right back to where she was. They just literally get out of jail and go right back to the guy."

And it's not always a guy, Rapp added. He spoke of one incident in which a woman, having arranged to meet someone she thought was a customer in a parking lot, said, "Have a good time," leaving behind her juvenile daughter, presumably to have sex with a stranger.

The task force was unable to prosecute the woman, Rapp added, because her daughter refused to testify.

"Not exactly parent of the year," he said.

About 90 percent of women trafficking victims are addicted to drugs, mostly heroin, Rapp said. So far in his 14 months with the task force, none of the juvenile victims have been addicted -- but "it's only a matter of time," he predicted.

The Salvation Army's involvement in combating modern-day slavery is not odd, Hannan said. The religious organization was founded in England in 1865 and by the 1880s was developing homes for women and children who had been forced to turn to prostitution by the grinding poverty on the streets of London, she said.

Advocates for victims of human trafficking often say they could turn their attentions to other matters if only the customers weren't out there for the women and girls coerced into the commercial sex trade, Hannan said.

To that end, the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition, which Hannan said is a network and not its own nonprofit organization, will host an interfaith conference Jan. 25 to get people in faith communities to help reduce demand.

"Right now, I would say that we have made great strides to assist survivors after, but I don't think we've done enough to stem the tide on the front end," Hannan said.

kparks@thisweeknews.com

@KevinParksTW1