CLEVELAND -- It’s called “modern day slavery” and community leaders say it is a growing problem in northeast Ohio. A community forum was held on Tuesday evening in an effort to expose the problem and stop it.
"At first I wasn't going that route, I thought that she was kidnapped off the street for other reasons, but now I truly believe that it was for human trafficking," said Felix DeJesus, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, disappeared from West 105th and Lorain eight years ago.
"I said it from the beginning that she was sold to the highest bidder," said the girl’s mother, Nancy Ruiz.
DeJesus and his wife, Ruiz, shared their story with residents who attended a community forum about human trafficking at the Applewood Centers on Cleveland's west side.
"Where she went missing is so active with people, so much traffic and nobody seen nothing, and now it's been eight years, nobody, no nothing... so that actually tells me she's still alive, she's still out there," Ruiz said.
"You're on the streets all day long, you're the ones who live next door to these people. if you can understand what to look for, maybe we can get that information, and we can resolve something and maybe save someone's life," said second district Cleveland Police Commander Keith Sulzer.
Police and other community leaders briefed the public on signs to look for, for example, a house with lots of car and foot traffic, or drastic behavioral changes in children. They say trafficking victims can be girls or boys, teens or adults. They say the trafficker can be a man or woman, young or old.
"There is an issue in the City of Cleveland. However, this is to be more proactive instead of reactive to a growing phenomenon in our community," said Blaine Griffin, executive director of Cleveland’s Community Relations Board.
"Within 72 hours of a teen being out on the street, they will be solicited for sex," explained Karen McHenry.
McHenry manages a program for homeless youth at the Bellefaire Center in Shaker Heights. She said children can become victims on the street or on the Internet or through social media. McHenry said it's a problem in the inner city and the suburbs.
"These pimps are looking for kids between the ages of 12 to 14 and they know that those are impressionable young ages and so that they can possibly be more manipulative," she said.
Statistics show that human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world…second to drug dealing.
Tuesday night’s meeting is the first of a series of human trafficking forums to be held citywide.