"I was raped, kicked and beaten -- I was in a coma after being beaten in the head 16 times. I was somebody's child, but did they care? No they didn't."

Gazing at students in the front row of the auditorium, Barbara Freeman's voice was strong and matter-of-fact as she talked about being kicked out of her home at age 13.

Her dark eyes grew haunted, though, as she described a teenage life on the streets, then 24 years as a victim of human trafficking.

"I was raped, kicked and beaten -- I was in a coma after being beaten in the head 16 times," she said. "I was somebody's child, but did they care? No they didn't."

More than 250 people listened to Freeman's story at the "Break Every Chain" Human Trafficking Conference Jan. 28 at Reynoldsburg High School's Summit Road campus.

Coordinated by the Reynoldsburg Youth Human Trafficking Coalition and former Reynoldsburg councilman Cornelius McGrady III, the conference brought a clear message: Human trafficking is a local problem.

A Reynoldsburg man and woman were convicted of human trafficking in November 2016, after luring victims to their home on Whitebirch Court for more than three years.

In 2015, authorities rescued 18 women being trafficked at massage parlors in Powell, Worthington and Columbus. The women were not allowed to leave and were forced to live in servitude at the parlors, sleeping on massage tables, police said.

McGrady said human trafficking is "modern-day slavery."

"Slavery was abolished 150 years ago, yet there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in our history," he said. "More awareness of these crimes could lead to eradication."

Freeman said she was trafficked in Columbus, Reynoldsburg, Pataskala and many other local communities.

"I've been with doctors, lawyers, judges, attorneys," she said. "I'm 45 years old and I just left that life eight years ago."

She founded The Freeman Project five years ago to help women escape from sexual slavery. Information about the project is available online at thefreemanproject.com.

Casting lures

Veronica Scherbauer from the Ohio Attorney General's Office said victims are often lured by the promise of education or employment.

She said more than 40 juveniles were smuggled illegally into the United States in 2015 from South American countries. They ended up working on commercial egg farms in Marion, Ohio.

"The traffickers told their parents the kids would go to high school in the United States," Scherbauer said.

"Some parents sold their land to the traffickers to give children that opportunity.

"The kids ended up living in trailers with no heat, no air conditioning, no running water and no beds," she said. "They were forced to work in the egg factories for 16 hours a day, seven days a week. They were told they had to do this to pay for the price of their trip and for high school."

Scherbauer said increased access to the internet and social media has given traffickers better tools to reach young people.

The International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million men, women and children are currently victims of some form of human trafficking, working on farms, in sweatshops or in the commercial sex trade, Scherbauer said.

Opioid connection

Jennifer Biddinger, also from the Ohio Attorney General's office, talked about how the opioid epidemic in Ohio is connected to human trafficking.

"We see girls and boys with low self-esteem, then the dealer gives them something to feel better," she said.

"Soon they are trafficked or the girls are pregnant, and they may want to leave and get help, but they are scared to death.

 

"We see parents so addicted they are trading their children for drugs and allowing their children to be trafficked."

About 20 Reynoldsburg students are members of the Reynoldsburg Youth Human Trafficking Coalition. The group received a certificate of recognition from the Ohio Attorney General's Office at the Jan. 28 conference. In 2015, the coalition received the Ohio Liberators Award.

Kevin Spears, a freshman at BELL Academy in Reynoldsburg, said he became involved to learn to recognize victims.

"If I see someone who may be a victim, I want to do something about it," he said. "If I see someone living on the streets and I know what to look for, I can make a difference."

Spotting victims

According to the Ohio Attorney General's Office, seeing a person living on the streets and controlled by someone or showing signs of physical abuse or starvation, or someone who appears to live at or near their workplace, could be warning signs that person is being trafficked.

Learn more at OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov/HumanTrafficking.

pwillis@thisweeknews.com

@PamelaThisWeek