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CATCH Court was started by former Franklin County Judge Paul Herbert, now retired, to help restore the lives of human trafficking victims charged with crimes. Today, the court is overseen by Judge Jodi Thomas.

Darron Silva (Judge Herbert), Jo McCulty (Judge Thomas)

One path to freedom

A national model, this Columbus court gives victims guidance and resources to pursue lives they didn’t think possible.

Former Judge Paul Herbert ’83 remembers the exact moment he began to understand the dynamics and brutality of human trafficking. He was on the bench in Franklin County Municipal Court, and he mistook the female defendant before him for a victim of domestic violence.

“She had been beaten up by her trafficker. She had a black eye, her nose looked like it’d been broken. Just awful. I looked down at the file and it said ‘prostitute.’ In my middle-American, white-male brain, it finally got through to me.”

When he finished court that day, the judge went straight to the internet. What he learned then, and in later conversations with women charged, led him to establish the nation’s third specialized court for human trafficking in 2009. Herbert presided over the court for a decade, becoming the first man many of the women ever grew to trust, says Judge Jodi Kotzin Thomas ’98.

When Herbert retired in late 2020 after 17 years on the bench, he turned his responsibilities over to Thomas with full confidence. In nearly two decades as a public defender, Thomas had represented most of the women who came before the court. She was one of the first people Herbert shared the original concept with, and he knew she had the compassion and connections to take the program to the next level.

Esther Flores wearing glasses and a bandana with hearts
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Registered nurse Esther Flores ’01 helps victims of human trafficking find hope and rest for mind, body and spirit.

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The court is known as CATCH, for Changing Actions to Change Habits, and as the name implies, it truly is a safety net.

Participants meet in court weekly to share their struggles, successes and deepest personal stories with Thomas and one another. The two-year program covers basic needs such as housing, food and eventually job opportunities, all of which the women had previously relied on their traffickers for. They must undergo trauma counseling and drug treatment — in recent years, nearly all have been addicted to opioids — and later can apply to have their criminal records expunged.

For Thomas, who studied social work at Ohio State, the opportunity to help women break the bonds of sexual slavery fulfills a calling to use the legal system to improve lives.

The realities of sex trafficking are horrific. A majority of women enter the lifestyle as teenagers. Many are trafficked by relatives, including parents. Histories of sexual abuse, poverty and mental illness are common. All have suffered deep trauma, making them vulnerable to a trafficker’s common scheme of first caring for and then exploiting their victims.

“These women were seen as the throwaways of society. But they’re not. They are survivors,” Thomas says of those involved in CATCH. “Every week when the participants come in, we basically have a group meeting. We talk about issues and themes, what they’re doing, how their treatment is going. It’s very therapeutic.”

Sixty-nine women have graduated from the program, and many of these Butterflies, as they’re known, remain active to encourage and guide women who follow. Nearly 350 women have participated but not graduated. Still, they have benefited.

Illustration of one woman consoling another woman
Seers, thinkers, doers

To confront a complicated problem such as human trafficking, it takes a community, and as Buckeyes, we’re invested.

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“As I learned from Judge Herbert, we will have a lot of women who will not complete this program. We look at recidivism — they’re not picked up on new charges, that’s the No. 1 thing we look at. A lot of women get their kids back because they’re doing so well and can’t meet the demanding requirements of this program. Some get full-time jobs or return to school.”

As Thomas considers ways to evolve the program to meet changing needs and circumstances, recognizing women as they complete phases of the program is one possibility.

“We measure success differently in CATCH,” she says. “We are planting seeds. We’re building a foundation. Not everybody gets through it, but there are a lot of things we want to celebrate that the women are doing right, and that’s the point of this program.”

Thomas is grateful for the work of her predecessor, and her commitment to the women of the CATCH program — through her work as a public defender and for the past 15 months leading this court — is obvious.

“Judge Herbert’s legacy is here. I can’t replace him, and I won’t ever try. What I can do is carry on his work and bring my passion and what I know, what I’ve worked on, and continue to make it better and to grow it. I will never fill his shoes, but I can follow his footprints. And make my own as well. That’s what we’re doing for these women. We’re giving them footprints to walk in.”

About the author

Portrait of author

Mary Alice Casey

Mary Alice Casey is editor of Ohio State Alumni Magazine. She has worked in higher education communications for 20 years, having started her career as a newspaper reporter and editor.