The connection between human trafficking and opioids will be the focus of a Jan. 20 conference sponsored by the Reynoldsburg Youth Human Trafficking Coalition.

This year's event -- the third put on by the RYHTC -- is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church, 1636 Graham Road.

Attendance is free. Registration opens at 8:30 a.m. A box lunch will be available for $5.

Cornelius McGrady III, founder of RYHTC, said the conference will feature a number of local professionals in the fight against human trafficking.

"The conference is a great opportunity for the public to be educated or refreshed on human trafficking and the opioid epidemic," he said. "We will hear from a survivor of human trafficking and an expert panel of local professionals working on fighting human trafficking in our community."

McGrady first organized the group of Reynoldsburg High School students in 2013, helping them research human trafficking and work to bring more awareness to the problem.

Traffickers often target teen runaways, young men and women looking for jobs, even children at malls or walking home from school to lure them into a world of forced prostitution, McGrady said.

Survivor stories confirm a link between the opioid epidemic and human trafficking, as pimps and gangs supply victims with drugs until they become addicts.

According to the 2017 Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force Report, about 3,000 minors and young adults in Ohio could be at risk for human trafficking.

Since awareness efforts were ramped up in 2016 and 2015, Ohio data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline indicated the number of calls increased by 32 percent. More than 1,000 calls concerning Ohio victims came in to the hotline in 2015, compared to 459 calls in 2012, according to the report.

The Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition and the Salvation Army also have task forces to fight human trafficking and have worked with the youth coalition to increase awareness of the issue through Break Every Chain events, McGrady said.

He said speakers this year will include Veronica Scherbauer and Alisha Nelson from the Ohio Attorney General's Office, and human trafficking survivor Barbara Freeman.

A panel discussion will take place during the last hour of the conference, featuring Freeman, Reynoldsburg Director of Public Safety James R. Mosic and Lt. Joe Posey from the Truro Township Fire Department.

Professor Kimberly Jordan from the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, said in a presentation video on humantrafficking.ohio.gov., that victims of prostitution are just that -- "victims of a crime."

"We have done a mind shift in these cases to realize that we should not criminalize these women, but should be going after the people that are doing the purchasing and getting the profits from the selling," she said. "We can now offer the girls and women supportive services to get them out of that life."

Franklin County Municipal Judge Paul Herbert, who has spoken at past Break Every Chain conferences, began a program in 2009 called CATCH Court (Changing Actions to Change Habits) to provide a path of rehabilitation, recovery and support for victims of trafficking and prostitution, instead of prosecuting them.

For questions about the conference, email McGrady at reyouhtc@gmail.com.

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