Login | July 21, 2019

Youngstown muni court unveils human trafficking program

Legal News Reporter

Published: May 16, 2019

Say the words human trafficking and images of a boat or truck filled with illegal aliens being smuggled into the U.S. may come to mind.

While such scenarios may result in forced prostitution or labor for some of those people, Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force Agent Bill Cranston said in the Mahoning Valley the majority of the victims are young drug-addicted females that are being manipulated by dealers to sell themselves in exchange for heroin or other drugs.

“One of the biggest problems is that people don’t understand the definition of human trafficking, which is coercing a person, through the use of force, fraud or deception, to commit an act or acts that benefit the coercer,” said Cranston, a deputy sheriff in the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office.

In Ohio Cranston said traffickers often begin grooming their victims at age 13.

“They usually target children who live in group and foster homes, who may have mental health or substance abuse issues,” said Cranston. “While it can happen to boys as well, the majority of the victims are girls.

“Here in Mahoning County, we’ve witnessed parents selling their own children to support their drug habits.”

Cranston said statistics indicate that many of the young people have a life expectancy of just seven years once they become trafficking victims.

Some are arrested along the way and charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies directly related to their situations, which can offer them a lifeline in cases where the courts have specialized dockets and programs in place to assist human trafficking victims.

On April 2, Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Renee DiSalvo unveiled her plans for the GRACE (Growth Restored through Acceptance, Change and Empowerment) human trafficking treatment program, which aims to help break the cycle of abuse for victims who find their way into the municipal court system through various misdemeanor crimes.

Based on the Franklin County Municipal Court certified specialized docket CATCH (Changing Actions to Change Habits) Court, the GRACE program will provide wraparound services to human trafficking victims who are eligible to participate.

“We will be focusing on trauma therapy since studies show that human trafficking victims struggle with posttraumatic stress disorder more than other crime victims, short of our veterans,” said Judge DiSalvo. “We will also be providing alcohol/substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, job training and safe housing, with the end goal of teaching participants how to form healthy relationships, make positive life choices and lead productive lives.

“I am in the process of obtaining Supreme Court certification as a specialized docket,” she said. “At this point, participants will enter the program under Motion of Intervention in Lieu of Conviction.”

Once the Supreme Court certification is obtained GRACE will operate differently.

Defense attorneys, court staff and members of the Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force will be referring potential candidates to GRACE.

There are currently three individuals who are expected to begin the pilot program.

While participation in the two-year program is voluntary, individuals must be screened for eligibility and agree to abide by the rules, treatment plans and guidelines.

According to Youngstown Municipal Court Chief of Probation David Magura, anyone who wants to be considered must first be evaluated for mental health and alcohol/substance abuse problems. The person then meets with a trauma counselor, who uses a Supreme Court approved screening tool to determine if the individual is a victim of human trafficking.

Those who are accepted into the program will receive an individualized treatment plan created by the GRACE treatment team, which includes representatives from Neil Kennedy Recovery Centers, COMPASS Family and Community Services, Advanced Counseling Solutions and RAHAB Ministries.

There will be three phases to the GRACE program, which participants are required to successfully complete.

“Our program will provide victims with a road map and resources to lead successful independent lives so they are not forced back into a life of trafficking,” said Judge DiSalvo.

“The overall goal is to reduce recidivism, offer rehabilitation services to the victims, reduce or eliminate incarceration and improve public safety by helping to destroy another root of local crime.

“We want to dry up this income source of the traffickers, a good portion of whom also traffic in drugs and expose and stop those who rely on human trafficking victims to do their bidding,” said Judge DiSalvo.