West African man convicted of keeping 4 boys as slaves

(Courtesy of Fotolia)

(Courtesy of Fotolia)

YPSILANTI, Mich. – On Tuesday, a  federal jury convicted a former janitor at the University of Michigan of enslaving and abusing four West African boys. He held the boys in his home for five years and pretended that they were his own children.

Jean-Claude Kodjo Toviave, a native of the West African nation of Togo, could face up to 20 years in prison after being convicted on four counts of forced labor. Toviave, 42, was originally arrested in May 2011 after three of the boys reported the abuse to counselors at a middle school.

Toviave, whose sentencing is set for Feb. 6, smuggled the four boys into the country from Togo by using fake passports with false names and birth dates. Claiming the boys were his own biological children, he went as far as enrolling the three youngest – ages 21, 20, and 15 – in a public middle school.

During the trial, the boys testified that Toviave regularly beat them with broomsticks, a toilet plunger, sticks, ice scrapers, and cell phone chargers if they failed to obey orders to do their house chores – which included cooking, housecleaning, ironing his suits, shining his shoes, washing and vacuuming his car, and cleaning one of his friends’ houses.

Toviave also starved and sleep-deprived them as punishment. In February, Toviave pled guilty to mail fraud and harboring illegal aliens in connection with bringing the four boys to the United States.

Human trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, ranks just behind drug trafficking for most profitable criminal industries, with children accounting for half of all victims. Michigan, specifically Metro Detroit, has become one of the prime areas for human trafficking.

The state instituted its first human trafficking laws in 2006 and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette expanded them in 2011. The changes included stiffer penalties for sex trafficking, involving minors in sex acts, and forced enslavement.

On March 24, Seddrick “Gruesome” Mitchell of Detroit was convicted of eight criminal charges in connection with forcing two young girls, ages 14 and 15, to engage in prostitution. He was sentenced to 35 to 60 years in prison on April 11.

“In Michigan, we have seen victims in the Upper Peninsula, in Detroit, and in rural areas,” said Bridgette Carr, an Assistant Professor of Law and director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. “We haven’t found a community yet that we haven’t seen a victim come from.”

“So, what I often tell people is: ‘Find a community that doesn’t have a drug problem, and I can talk about perhaps your community doesn’t have a human trafficking problem.’ That’s how prevalent it is.”

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