27 Investigates: Prostitution persists in Youngstown

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — On street corners and in motel rooms in Youngstown, women are being trafficked for sex and often feel trapped and unable to leave.

In 2012, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine crusaded against massage parlors throughout the Mahoning Valley. Some of these sexually-oriented businesses have long been suspected of being fronts for human trafficking.

But WKBN 27 Investigates Reporter Amanda Smith found little has changed to end sex trafficking since then.

A lot of streets on the South Side of Youngstown feature neglected homes, abandoned lots, drugs, theft and prostitution. For many of the women working these streets, it is a terrible existence.

Tonya worked the streets of the South Side for her pimp before he took her to Texas, Mississippi, Florida and Virginia, which are all places she has arrests and convictions for drugs and prostitution.

Now drug-free and enrolled in a master’s degree program, she didn’t want us to show her face or use her real name.

“Every young girl that is out there selling her body, there is a reason behind it. It’s not because there is a dream as a child, ‘I want to grow up to be a prostitute,'” Tonya said. “When you are in addiction, and your money runs out and you have to get well, you think, he loves me.”

Smith found police investigate three distinct types of prostitution in the Valley: Street walkers, escorts and massage parlors.

Street walkers work mostly in neighborhoods, many on the South Side, where police investigate the most drug and gang activity.

Escorts are found along the interstate exits and in motel rooms. They advertise on Internet sites and occasionally get arrested in stings.

In January, a group of women was arrested and charged with prostitution, working in the motels. Right after they pleaded to reduced charges on March 31, their escort ads were back up on the Internet.

Tonya said police never looked at her or her friends as victims.

“You’re arresting all these women, but you’re not looking at who’s got them out there on the corners,” Tonya said.

She finally went to prison, where she met a church volunteer who helped her escape life on the street. There are local organizations working to end prostitution and sex trafficking, including the Northeast Ohio Coalition on Rescue and Restore, or NEOCORR.

“The life is Hell. That is the only word I can use,” said Isabel Seavey, NEOCORR director.

Seavey and NEOCORR successfully campaigned to shut down the massage parlors in Trumbull County, where court records show women from other countries are often forced to live and give sexually oriented massages.

“They’re virtually held captive. But not by chains. They’re not tied to a bed post. The chains are in their heads,” Seavey said.

Tonya said leaving a pimp is not easy.

“They will find you. Youngstown is not that big of a city. They will find you and when they find you, they will drag you out and take your money and take your dope,” Tonya said.

Now out of the life of drug addiction and prostitution, Tonya is hoping to help other women break the cycle. She is HIV positive and volunteers with the local AIDS ministries.

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