Although I am a special needs and elder law attorney by trade, I also volunteer in my community in the fight against human trafficking. Human trafficking is when a victim is forced, tricked, or coerced into labor or sex work by someone who is exploiting them. I have been involved in this work since 2009 and am now known as an expert in the field. I have had the honor of working directly with many human trafficking survivors of all different backgrounds, ages, economic statuses, and cultures, and they all had only one trait in common–they had a vulnerability that a trafficker used to exploit them. That vulnerability may be a drug addiction, an inability to speak English, extreme poverty, or in some cases, a developmental disability. Unfortunately, I have seen an overlap between my career and my volunteer work. Whether it be financial abuse, physical abuse, or human trafficking, people with disabilities can be particularly vulnerable to various types of exploitation.
I have worked for a few years with a woman in her late fifties who has an intellectual disability. She suffered a great deal of child abuse in part because her disability made her vulnerable to the bad actors around her. In adulthood, she turned to drugs to manage her trauma and pain, which made her vulnerable to pimps and drug dealers. After years of being trafficked in street prostitution in Columbus, she is now celebrating five years sober in her own apartment where her grandchildren often visit. Another woman with whom I have worked since 2010 developed dissociative personality disorder and traumatic brain injury from the violent abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Although her father was convicted and imprisoned after his years of abuse were discovered, she continued to suffer long-term effects. Traffickers exploited this vulnerability and used drugs to control and traffick her. She is now sober and safe, living with her daughter in Columbus and helping to care for her youngest grandbaby. Both of these women were identified as human trafficking victims by the judges and prosecutors handling their criminal charges and were connected to drug rehabilitation, safe housing, public benefits, and mental health services.
In 2014, the New York Times did a piece called, “The Boys in the Bunkhouse” about a labor trafficking case in Iowa. A few dozen men with intellectual disabilities were trafficked by the group home where they lived. For over 30 years, this group home forced these men to work long hours slaughtering turkeys in a processing plant. The men were not fed enough, nor provided sanitary housing, and needed immediate medical attention when they were rescued by the authorities. The victims did not realize that what was being done to them was wrong and did not know to reach out for help. Though this case was extreme, it shows that exploitation often lurks in the shadows undiscovered.
The Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities has been working hard to raise awareness about exploitation and human trafficking. They have held a number of meetings and trainings with anti-human trafficking experts and are educating people with disabilities, their families, and staff. For those with disabilities, it is important they are empowered to speak up, recognize what is abuse, and be given the opportunity to report it to those who will listen and protect them. For family members, checking for signs of physical or financial abuse by friends or caregivers is critical. For staff, community resources, such as local anti-human trafficking coalitions and sexual assault response teams, can connect them to training and experts who can assist if abuse is suspected.
Legally, there are a number of different protections that can be put into place to protect someone with disabilities. If a family member has a power of attorney for their loved one with disabilities or is their representative payee, they can supervise finances to be sure that friends or acquaintances are not taking advantage. Through estate planning tools, such as trusts, they can protect assets from potential predators. By obtaining a guardianship of a loved one with disabilities, a family member can make decisions about health professionals and caregivers. By remaining actively involved with Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and Individualized Service Plan (ISP) teams, family members can demand serious issues be addressed early before they become bigger problems. Caution should be taken with these legal tools, however, since in rare cases, powers of attorney, representative payees, guardians, and trustees exploit the very people they should protect. This type of abuse should be reported immediately.
If you suspect that someone with disabilities is being exploited, there are a few different ways to report it. First and foremost, do not hesitate to contact law enforcement. Police departments accept tips on their non-emergency number. If a power of attorney, guardian, or trustee is abusing their power, this can be reported to the local probate court. If a representative payee is misusing funds, this can be reported to the Office of Inspector General (OIG) Fraud Hotline, 1-800-HSS-TIPS. You can also contact your local county board of developmental disabilities, Adult Protective Services, or the national human trafficking hotline number (888-3737-888) to report suspected abuse. The national number can connect you to your local anti-human trafficking advocates. As people become more aware and educated about exploitation, we as a community can shine a light on exploitation, empower survivors, and protect loved ones.