Restoring Hope: The Fight Against Human Trafficking
Warning: This story includes content about child abuse and sexual violence that some readers may find upsetting.
Caroline Palmer’s smile immediately makes you feel welcome. As a patient registration representative for Radiology at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital, her friendly face puts patients and visitors at ease. But Palmer is also the face of something you may not suspect – she’s a survivor of human trafficking.
For many people, their understanding of human trafficking is similar to the 2008 film Taken, starring Liam Neeson. But the reality is very different. Human trafficking occurs right here in Columbus. Society just masks it with a different name – prostitution.
Prostitution has been around for centuries. It’s mired in controversy and has a mixed reputation. Most condemn and criminalize it. Others celebrate it as a form of female empowerment. But the statistics show that the world’s oldest profession is really the world’s oldest oppression.
“85 percent of women trafficked in the United States are our own women and girls,” said Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Paul Herbert. “And nearly two-thirds are victims of sexual abuse.”
That’s how Palmer’s story begins.
“When I was in the third grade, my father started molesting me, and that continued for about eight years,” said Palmer. “I was so scared. He’d threaten to kill my mom and marry me.”
Palmer’s mother denied the sexual abuse for years, but when Palmer told her what he would say to her each time he was ready to have sex, her mom froze. “It was what he would say to her. That’s when the light bulb went off in her head that she had failed me.”
Her mother finally pressed charges and divorced her father, but the trauma he inflicted left Palmer vulnerable to manipulation. When she was 15, she fell prey to Thomas, a 30-year-old friend of her neighbor’s. “He talked nice to me, bought me clothes, made me feel like he cared about me. And then we started having sex,” said Palmer.
Thomas’ behavior is what Judge Herbert calls boyfriending. It’s how traffickers lure women in. “They promise love and stability, but then sex becomes business and they find ways to detain the women.”
One of the most common tools used to maintain control of trafficked women is drugs. Thomas persuaded Palmer to try crack after a fight the two had, telling her it would help her calm down. She was hooked instantly. Over the next few years, Palmer’s and Thomas’ addiction spiraled out of control, costing Palmer her budding career in banking.
That’s when Thomas started selling Palmer.
“The first time it happened, he sold me for $150. At the time, I didn’t know I was being trafficked,” said Palmer. “I was in love with him. But he was conning me. He’d been grooming me since I was 15.”
Judge Herbert says it’s not unusual for a trafficked woman to stand by her trafficker. “Sixty-two percent of women who are trafficked enter prostitution before the age of 18, 33% before they are 15. Abuse, false promises, fear and resignation become all they know. Their trafficker is the steady influence in their life, who is there for them when society has turned its back.”
For 15 years, Palmer was pressured to sell her body for income, continuing to battle the addiction her trafficker used to coerce compliance with his demands. She was arrested more than 23 times and served three felony sentences at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. She had eight children, five by johns (men who paid her for sex), and lost custody of the first seven. Caroline was raped five times, beaten, branded, kidnapped and nearly murdered twice. At times she was homeless, and often hungry, at one point weighing only 87 pounds.
“People think prostitutes make a choice,” said Palmer. “They think we get what we deserve. But you don’t just decide to be a prostitute. I knew a lot of girls who went through so much at home and in life. Doctors’ daughters, preachers’ daughters, lawyers’ daughters … there’s no discrimination. Anyone can have something happen to them that leads them to prostitution.”
Through the kindness of a landlord who offered her a one-way bus ticket to escape her circumstances, Palmer, then pregnant with her eighth child, fled south to family in Mississippi in 2002 and entered treatment at Region One Mental Health in Clarksdale. Over the next 14 years, she rebuilt her life, becoming a bus driver for the local school, working at the library, writing a book about her story, speaking publicly at schools and prisons, and earning her general education degree with honors from Coahoma Community College.
Palmer returned to Columbus in 2016 when her mother became ill. At a job fair, she learned about Restoration Academy, a rigorous, six-month program provided by the city in partnership with community organizations to reduce the rate of recidivism. Palmer was one of 12 applicants accepted into the program that year. She got placed in a job with VSP Vision Care and received legal aid to have her felony record expunged. New laws allow for the destruction of records related to prostitution if survivors can prove they were victims of human trafficking.
“Expungement is the ultimate fresh start,” says Judge Herbert.
Restoration Academy is just one of many local programs helping victims of human trafficking.
Ten years ago, Judge Herbert founded CATCH Court (Changing Actions to Change Habits), a specialty docket in Franklin County that offers women who have been trafficked a two-year intensive probation program to exit trafficking instead of serving jail time.
“These women wind up in court with charges of prostitution, drug use and other crimes, but they look like victims of domestic abuse, not hardened criminals,” he said.
CATCH partners with Maryhaven and Amethyst, and several other substance use recovery centers in central Ohio, and requires the women to attend weekly meetings that include education and support. He says 72% of the women who graduate the program have no new criminal charges, and 77% are employed, volunteering or enrolled in education programs or vocational training.
CATCH Court director Hannah Estabrook, MA, LPCC-S, founded Sanctuary Night with help from Lower Lights Ministries. Every Monday, from 8–10 p.m., women caught in the cycle of prostitution can visit the center on Sullivant Avenue for a warm meal, clothing, hygiene items and connections to community resources.
“These women have grown up as victims of systemic injustice, and sexual and other trauma in their family system. They turn to prostitution because that’s all that’s available to them,” said Estabrook. “The criminal justice system in Franklin County has done an amazing job helping trafficked women, but it’s a growing burden. Some women need a different way out, one that is more autonomous.” Estabrook hopes to secure enough funding to open a new drop-in center this summer that will be open to women 24/7.
OhioHealth has also taken steps to serve trafficking victims. Through a partnership with United Way, our Wellness on Wheels mobile units deliver women’s health and prenatal care to women at Maryhaven and Amethyst once a week, regardless of their ability to pay. If the women need additional services the unit can’t provide, we connect them with our charity care program at their OhioHealth hospital of choice.
OhioHealth nurses also provide quarterly health education to women in CATCH Court and HART (Helping Achieve Recovery Together), another specialty docket in Franklin County for people with opiate addictions.
“Most of these women have never had evidence-based education about their bodies, let alone information about the opportunity to live the violence- and drug-free life that they want,” said Shannon Ginther, senior director of Community Health Partnerships at OhioHealth. “They’re very engaged in the lectures.”
But Ginther says OhioHealth still has opportunity.
“Moving forward, we need to look at more training for our associates, so they can recognize the signs of human trafficking and immediately connect victims with services,” said Ginther.
Judge Herbert shares staggering statistics that make it clear OhioHealth is likely already caring for trafficked women in our emergency rooms and other care sites:
If you feel someone in your care may be a victim of human trafficking, take the following steps:
- Practice trauma-informed care: Trauma reactions are often misdiagnosed or overlooked as symptoms of mental illness. Victims of trafficking may develop dissociative personality disorder, exhibit aggression or refuse to talk. You can practice trauma-informed care by not casting judgment, looking patients in the eyes and showing genuine concern, listening to what they have to say, and being consistent, transparent and flexible.
- Recognize the signs of trauma and trafficking: Women and girls who are being trafficked may have bruises or other injuries, exhibit submissive or fearful behavior, show signs of drug addiction, act withdrawn or avoid making eye contact, lie or speak evasively, or have an older man with them.
- If you suspect something, say something: You can reach officers in Columbus Police’s new PACT (Police and Community Together) unit by calling 311. Your call goes directly to the unit and will be received by someone who has special training in human trafficking. The details you provide can also help them build cases against traffickers in the area.
- Connect victims with help: The National Human Trafficking Hotline will connect you with a local organization who can come to your care site to talk with patients. Just call 1 (888) 373.7888 or text 233733.
- Volunteer and give generously: Many of the local organizations working to end human trafficking have opportunities for you to donate your time or funds, including Sanctuary Night and Freedom A La Cart.
- Share the message: Talk to your fellow associates, friends, family and neighbors about the realities of prostitution, human trafficking and commercial sex. Share this story.
- Innovate: Seek ways to protect women and other vulnerable people within our system and in your communities.
However you choose to help, you can be part of the solution, says Estabrook. “I have yet to have someone come to me with their skill or desire to give and not been able to use it.”
Today, Palmer is rebuilding bonds with her children, and glows with pride when she talks about them. Her youngest is about to graduate high school. She has straight A’s, is enrolled in courses at Columbus State and plays multiple sports.
“I love my kids. When they took them from me, the world wasn’t the same,” she said. “Parents are supposed to make a way for their kids to have a good life. I didn’t have that as a kid, but God’s giving me the chance to do that now for my kids.”
Palmer is working toward a degree in healthcare and human services, and hopes one day to be a social worker at the hospital. But for now, she finds fulfillment in her current role. “This place is amazing,” she said. “We’re a team, and I love my job!”
Her advice to others is never to assume that you know what someone is going through. And, if you’re facing abuse, ask for help.
“If you’re ashamed, put that mindset aside, especially if you have kids. You have to tell people what’s going on. I was used and abused all my life until I took that first step. And I’m going to keep putting my foot forward.”