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Ohio sees hundreds of human trafficking cases each year. A local survivor is trying to help

Kwami Adoboe-Herrera is photographed in his Lake County home.
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
Kwami Adoboe-Herrera is photographed in his Lake County home. Adoboe-Herrera is a victim of labor trafficking and now works on awareness and prevention efforts in Northeast Ohio.

On a recent sunny May morning in a quiet Lake County neighborhood, Kwami Adoboe-Herrera was getting his lawn and garden ready for summer.

“I will never stop being a farmer,” Adoboe-Herrera said.

Adoboe-Herrera was born in Togo, a small African country, where his sharecropper parents taught him how to garden.

Now, he does it to cope when he has a lot on his mind, he said.

Kwami Adoboe-Herrera mows his lawn on May 7, 2024.
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
Kwami Adoboe-Herrera mows his lawn on May 7, 2024.

“It’s therapeutic for me, because I grew up with something I [knew] all my life, so I don’t want ever to give that up,” Adoboe-Herrera said. “When I need to decompress or just take a load off myself, I come out here and weed. It’s my way to cope.”

While his journey from Africa to the Cleveland suburbs has been filled with joy, there have been unimaginable hardships, he said.

When he was seven years old, a friend of his family offered to bring him to the United States with the promise of getting him an education. Public school wasn't free in Togo, and his parents couldn’t afford it, Adoboe-Herrera said.

But that turned out to be a complete lie, he said.

“I came here under one false pretense, and that was to go to school and be a better person. You know, the dream in American life, the American dream, you know, that's what was promised to me,” Adoboe-Herrera said. “That’s all it takes. It was that simple. This man capitalized on the vulnerability of my parents.”

Instead, the man took Adoboe-Herrera and three other minors to Ypsilanti, Michigan, and trafficked them into forced labor, Adoboe-Herrera said.

He forced the children to perform jobs such as cooking, cleaning and landscaping for paying clients, according to Homeland Security investigators. If they made a mistake, he beat them or used food and sleep deprivation as punishment, according to investigators.

“He was ruthless. He didn't care about me. Only he [cared] about making money off me,” Adoboe-Herrera said. “He [cared] about the power that he has over me. The control that he has over me.”

Kwami Adoboe-Herrera is photographed in his Lake County home.
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
Lake County resident Kwami Adoboe-Herrera talks to an Ideastream reporter about his experience in labor trafficking and how he wants to help fellow victims in Ohio on May 7, 2024.

This lasted for six years until one of Adoboe-Herrera's teachers suspected he was being abused and called police, he said.

“For the first time in my life, somebody approached me, asking this question: How can I help you?” he said. “She has given me life now, you know. Ever since then, I owe my life to her.”

His trafficker was sentenced to federal prison and has since been released and deported back to Africa, Adoboe-Herrera said.

Adoboe-Herrera is one of thousands of human trafficking victims in the U.S. Now, he is committed to helping survivors, specifically in Northeast Ohio where he now calls home, he said.

He’s a board member of Stark County-based nonprofit Not For Sale, which focuses on prevention and awareness of human trafficking with middle and high school students.

He’s also a member of the United States Advisory Council on Trafficking.

Ohio sees high trafficking rates

According to anOctober 2023 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, 2,027 people were referred to U.S. attorneys for human trafficking offenses in 2021 - a 49% increase since 2011.

Ohio is among the top states in the country for reports of human trafficking. The most recent data show nearly 600 victims were identified by various state agencies in 2022.

The state’s many highways make it easier to transport victims, and poverty issues can make people more vulnerable, said Kathie Gray, executive director of Not For Sale.

But increased awareness of the issue over the past few years may have contributed to the state’s numbers, she said.

“Because our state is doing an awesome job of educating and having awareness events throughout the state, it does help people to make more phone calls,” Gray said.

Kathie Gray, executive director of Not For Sale, poses at a recent awareness event at Jackson Park in Stark County.
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
Kathie Gray, executive director of Not For Sale, poses at a recent awareness event at Jackson Park in Stark County.

A growing problem, Gray said, is minors being groomed and trafficked on social media, apps and websites.

Gray works with local police departments for the nonprofit's prevention efforts. Police told her more awareness about online trafficking is needed.

“They literally said, 'You know, if you could educate the public on the number one tool - is in their hands. It's their cell phone,'” Gray said. “Do abductions happen? Unfortunately, yes. Are there bad people throughout our entire country? Yes there are. But the number one way is social media.”

It's difficult to tell if the problem is getting better or worse in the state because trafficking is hard to track, Gray added. The crime is hidden in nature, so many cases go unreported, she said. Additionally, different agencies report their data to different locations.

“Not every police department reports to one specific location,” Gray said. “So, there's things like that that I think would be helpful if we all would have like a hub that we could report to.”

To try to streamline the process and get more accurate data, researchers at the University of Toledo are working with the state attorney general’s office to develop a new screening tool.

Victims need more support

More education about trafficking is needed, but there's also a need for more support and resources for victims, Adoboe-Herrera said.

It can be difficult to navigate society when victims are freed from their situation, he said.

“You don't know who to trust … You don’t know what do, because you were used to being where you are told what to do for most of your life,” he said. “And now, you exited this life. You’re like, ‘Oh, shoot. This is a lot harder than I thought.’ You have nowhere to go.”

All the while, they’re still coping with their trauma, he added.

This is something he deals with every day.

“It’s hard for me to move forward sometimes, knowing the verbal abuse that I endured. When you have someone calling you a failure for six years … I can’t erase that,” Adoboe-Herrera said. “But, you know, every day I wake up and I try to have a better life for myself. I thank God for the life I was given.”

Kwami Adoboe-Herrera poses with his wife, Margaret, in their Lake County home on May 7, 2024. They met when they were students attending Walsh University.
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
Kwami Adoboe-Herrera poses with his wife, Margaret, in their Lake County home on May 7, 2024. They met when they were students attending Walsh University.

One of his biggest goals is to start a shelter for adult males transitioning into society, he said.

He’s also advocating for legislation, such as a bill currently in the Ohio legislature that wouldhelp expunge criminal records of victims who committed a crime on behalf of their trafficker.

Despite his harrowing journey, Adoboe-Herrera is grateful to be in the U.S. fighting to help victims, he said.

“It’s a blessing, also. The reason I say that is because, you know, I was given a life that I don't think I would have if I didn't come to this country,” Adoboe-Herrera said. “So I was given a second chance, even though it wasn't the second chance I was looking for. I’m trying to make something out of it and to be a better version of who I’m meant to be.”

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.