Detroit-area children beaten with household items if they didn't labor for hours each day

ICE officials say human trafficking is big problem in metro Detroit, nation with victims hiding in plain sight

Published On: Jan 03 2013 10:33:34 PM EST

There is a crime investigators said is happening in metro Detroit and the victims are hiding in plain sight.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said human trafficking is a huge problem and it's continuing to grow across the United States.

ICE said there was a recent case in Ypsilanti with a man who brought four children into the country and kept them at his home to labor for him and his friends for years.

Jean-Claude "Kodjo" Toviave was convicted in federal court on four counts of forced labor.   The native of Togo, West Africa used fake passports to get the four children into the United States from Togo.

"He was forcing to perform labor, withholding food from them, and beating them," said John Holmes, Acting Special Agent in charge for ICE.

According to ICE, the children had to labor for 16 to 18 hours a day, cooking, cleaning, hand washing his clothes, shining his shoes, washing his car.  They also had to clean his friends' homes and watch their children.

Investigators said if the children didn't, they were beaten regularly with broomsticks, a toilet plunger, sticks, ice scrappers, and phone charges.

ICE said Toviave claimed the children where biologically his and lied about their ages.

"All of their dates of birth had been changed, so they appeared to be between the ages of eight and 15 but they were much older than that.  Again food was withheld from them routinely as a form of punishment so they didn't look as old as they were, they actually looked the age that was the lie," said Amy Allen, a victim witness specialist for ICE.

"The children that were the victims in this case, their fear of being deported back to their home country was giant, and that was based on the fact that this trafficker had reported lies and terrible things about them to their families, so they felt like they didn't have a family in their home country and they were without a real family here in the United States. They felt trapped," said Allen.

Homeland Security Investigations, which is under ICE, said Toviave had the children laboring for him for five years.   They said they were notified by the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department who had been investigating a report of child abuse.

"Human trafficking is either forced labor or sex trafficking. Human trafficking is somebody exploiting somebody for the purposes of their labor and also for sex trafficking," said Allen.

Holmes said a big challenge is that the victims of human trafficking often do not come forward.

"Victims are hidden in plain sight. They work in massage parlors, nail salons and other service industries, but they don't self identify as victims and often it's because they are fearful of, they're fearful of the government itself. They have a fear of being deported, they have concerns about their family, which may be in their home country, so they don't really come forward," said Holmes.

Allen said Homeland Security Investigations centers its approach on the victims, and helps guide them through the system.

"There is an awful lot of children that have been sold in their home country to the United States citizens for domestic service and those children are in homes, not in school sometimes, and being treated terribly, poorly by the families. We rely on the neighbors to alert us if they see children that aren't attending school, that aren't allowed to participate outside playing or eating when the family eats outside, all of that," said Allen.

The children in this case are attending school now.   Toviave faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced in February.

Both Allen and Holmes said people should report any suspicious behavior they see by calling the Homeland Security hotline at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or report it online by clicking here.