More than 1,000 youngsters under the age of 18 were sex-trafficking victims in Ohio during the past year, according to the first-ever statewide report on the subject by the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission.
A preliminary report released this afternoon by Attorney General Richard Cordray concluded that another 2,879 youth were at risk of being trafficked.
An additional 783 foreign-born persons were trafficked for sex or forced labor in Ohio in the past year, with another 3,437 at risk, the report said.
At the same time, the research subcommittee that prepared the report acknowledged that human trafficking is a largely invisible crime, making it "virtually impossible to determine the exact number of victims in Ohio at any given time and with any degree of certainty."
Cordray appointed the high-powered statewide panel based on the recommendation of the state's human-trafficking law, which took effect last year. The commission includes representatives from the FBI, state and local law enforcement, five state agencies, two state lawmakers, a Cleveland juvenile court judge and trafficking survivors from Columbus and Toledo.
A Dispatch examination of sex trafficking published last year prior to the commission's creation confirmed that the practice is a growing, vastly underreported problem that affects inner cities and affluent suburbs.
In compiling the report, the committee reviewed law enforcement records, reports from victim advocacy groups, other studies and stories from eight major Ohio newspapers, including The Dispatch.
Human trafficking, now the second-largest crime in the world behind illegal drug sales, affects at least 18,000 women and girls in U.S. each year, according to national studies. Another 300,000, many of them girls as young as 11, are considered vulnerable.
The Ohio report pinpointed the Toledo area as the fourth-highest metropolitan area -- and top urban area per capita -- for human trafficking cases. Only Miami, Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas had more.
Among the subcommittee's preliminary findings: Ohio's human-trafficking law is "weak." It is not a stand-alone law, merely adding human trafficking on top of other charges.
The committee also found that Ohio's first-responders remain "unaware and unprepared" to deal with trafficking cases, and customers who purchase youth for sex "remain protected, receiving minimal charges and are rarely prosecuted."
The committee called for establishment of more "safe houses" for trafficked youngsters.
The commission's final report and recommendations will be sent to the General Assembly and governor later this year.