Almost half of Ohio’s 32 Appalachian counties are not represented by an anti-human-trafficking coalition, but one new organization is hoping to bridge that gap.
Eyes Up Appalachia is a new anti-human-trafficking organization serving Appalachian Ohio with the goal of educating people about human trafficking and illuminating the issue in rural areas.
Christi Scott Bartman, founder of Eyes Up Appalachia, left her full-time job at American Public University a year and a half ago to start the group and invest more time fighting what she calls an “overwhelmingly wicked problem with so many facets.”
In talking with survivors, Bartman noticed two issues come up again and again: how housing insecurity impacts trafficking and the lack of coalitions in rural Ohio to fight human trafficking and support those ensnared.
In Ohio, communities use multidisciplinary coalitions to combat human trafficking, which are overseen by the state’s Human Trafficking Task Force. These coalitions, sometimes covering multiple counties, often include partnerships with local law enforcement, jobs and family services, child advocacy centers, immigration services, mental-health professionals and drug and alcohol abuse programs.
Looking at a map of where these coalitions were already servicing, Bartman noticed a huge gap in Ohio’s Appalachian counties, which span from the state’s northeastern corner down along the Pennsylvania border to the Ohio River and then to the southwest. There was a significant gap in services in southeastern Ohio, Bartman said.
Bartman initially started to do a needs assessment with the Appalachian Regional Commission to address the gaps in the area and to figure out how to get coalitions built in these areas. But the more she talked with locals who were interested in learning more about human trafficking, Bartman said she changed her course.
Instead of creating a single coalition to serve the unserved counties, she decided to create an initiative to help bridge the gaps and network with resources and agencies already doing great work in the region that could form their own coalitions.
“This work really needs to work on a local level. There are great resources at the state level, but it’s sometimes hard to get it down to the local level,” Bartman said. “We want to be the go between and make those connections.”
Bartman said that with this approach, she hopes to work with and build upon groups already doing the hard work in their own communities to create awareness of what human trafficking looks like in rural America.
Take Gallia County, for instance. Bartman reached out to Gallia Citizens for Prevention and Recovery, a local group that addresses issues such as addiction and mental health through different committees.
Gallia CPR previously had an anti-human-trafficking committee, but it disbanded because of funding issues. But the concern was still there.
“There was great concern about the lack of real response to human trafficking in our area,” said Thom Mollohan, a pastor in Gallipolis and member of the Gallia CPR. “Even though we’re in rural Ohio, it is present. It is a reality here.”
The committee felt it was something to address, so a new anti-human-trafficking coalition was formed as part of Gallia CPR. Mollohan said the group’s leadership and volunteers have built a solid foundation to address the intersectional issue of human trafficking and involve resources from across the county to educate people about how trafficking emerges and the warning signs.
The goal is to connect with resources in neighboring counties to further spread their reach.
Both Bartman and Mollohan said talking about the horrors of human trafficking can be difficult, but it’s important work to combat misinformation and show people that trafficking can happen anywhere.
It’s easy to believe that human trafficking is just an urban issue and thus follow the narrative of “That doesn’t happen here”, Bartman said. But human trafficking is a far-reaching issue that touches rural communities as well.
In June, a federal grand jury indicted a Scioto County man and eight others on charges related to a child sex trafficking operation. The man allegedly exchanged drugs for sexual access to the children of mothers addicted to drugs.
Earlier that same month, a Zanesville mother was found guilty of three felony offenses –– child endangering, trafficking in persons and compelling prostitution –– for allowing a 76-year-old man to have sexual contact with her then 8-year-old daughter in exchange for money.
And in October, Portsmouth attorney Michael Mearan was indicted on 18 felony counts related to human trafficking spanning 15 years.
“You don’t see what you would see on Sullivant Avenue in rural communities, but what you do see, unfortunately, is parents trafficking their children for drug money,” Bartman said.
Bartman said it’s never been more timely to discuss what human trafficking is and isn’t because of misinformation surrounding the #SaveTheChildren campaign. The campaign, which took over social media this summer, is based on rumors of massive child sex-trafficking schemes circulated by the conspiracy theory-peddling QAnon.
“#SaveTheChildren, unfortunately, did more harm than good,” Bartman said. “It politicized it, it inflamed it, it took what people assume to be a good cause and morphed it into something that was abusive and did damage to the folks really working in these areas.”
Thankfully, Bartman said, the myths have opened doors for advocates to explain what human trafficking really is and how to identify it.
Mollohan said one of the biggest problems his community faces is getting people to recognize potential human-trafficking victims. He hopes coalitions such as Galia CPR, and others that will form under Eyes Up Appalachia, can educate people to become a catalytic forces for good.
“I think people are still ignorant about human trafficking, and its a difficult subject to talk about it,” Mollohan said. “People are reluctant, but I think there’s a readiness to talk about it and how this actually plays out in our families and communities.”