Residents of Walworth County were shocked in January when a couple was arrested for allegedly holding a runaway 16-year-old Waukesha girl in a Janesville home and prostituting her to men they solicited on the Internet.
Sex trafficking is much more common in the state than it’s perceived to be. While Wisconsinites tend to think human trafficking is a problem confined to developing nations and large urban areas, the statistics show otherwise.
More than 200 victims of trafficking have been identified across half of Wisconsin’s counties, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice. During a nationwide FBI-coordinated investigation of human trafficking last summer, 10 children were rescued in Wisconsin and 100 suspected traffickers were arrested in a single day — numbers that were among the highest of all the cities participating in the probe.
Experts say the one-day operation revealed only the tip of a crime that is mostly hidden.
Jan Miyasaki, director of Madison’s Project Respect, said in her work with local women in the sex trade, she encounters between 50 and 75 cases a year involving force, fraud or coercion. Claudine O’Leary, a community educator who works with minors in the Milwaukee sex trade, said she’s come into contact with more than 100 young people in the past year whom she believes fit the definition of human trafficking victims.
But despite the scope of the trafficking problem, Miyasaki and other advocates say the state lacks money for data collection, education, law enforcement training and victim services that could bring more cases to light and help to prevent them. Only 7 percent of Wisconsin justice system agencies received training on human trafficking from 2000 to 2007, according to an article that appeared in the Wisconsin Law Review.
In 2008, the state enacted a law to help prosecutors and law-enforcement officials identify traffickers and bring them to justice. But weaknesses in the law have limited its effectiveness.
Last month, in a rare display of bipartisanship, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Madison threw their support behind a new, much stronger anti-trafficking law. Advocates for human trafficking victims believe the new law will make a difference.
With the assistance of Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office, GOP state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck authored AB620, which passed the Assembly on a bipartisan voice vote on Feb. 11. Loudenbeck, a member of the Assembly Committee on Public Health and Public Safety, says she sought input from law enforcement, victims advocacy groups and prosecutors to craft a law that makes it easier to obtain a conviction, strengthens penalties for traffickers and supports victims.
Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R– Marathon, authored a companion bill, SB492, which is expected to clear his chamber as soon as March 11.
“Human trafficking is a fast growing criminal industry across the globe and Wisconsin is no exception,” Petrowski said. “While Wisconsin is moving in the right direction to eradicate human trafficking, there is still a lot of work to do. We must protect our most vulnerable citizens.”
Loudenbeck said her eyes were opened to the problem when she read a report titled “Hidden in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking in the United States.” The report showed the problem needs a wider response than just creating laws, she said.
“It’s also about creating awareness,” Loudenbeck explained. “If you’re not trained to recognize what’s happening, then you’re not going to be able to have the appropriate response.”
It’s not just law enforcement officials who fail to recognize victims — it’s the victims themselves. Although sex traffickers coerce their victims into prostitution via physical violence and other forms of intimidation, such as withholding drugs from addicts, the victims often regard themselves as criminals due to the illegal acts they’re pressured to commit or their drug use.
In the past, victims have been reluctant to come for- ward because they’ve faced prosecution for crimes their abductors or controllers have compelled them to perform. Loudenbeck’s new law, however, protects victims from prosecution, thus eliminating a major barrier preventing them from seeking help.
Trafficking victims are mostly vulnerable people such as immigrants, poor and abused women and teens, and young people addicted to drugs. Homeless teens with nowhere to live and no means of support are especially subject to exploitation. They’re lured by offers of a place to stay, a meal, a relationship, a job or access to drugs.
Typical is the case of a 15-year-old Fitchburg runaway who was introduced to a man who offered to take her and her 10-month- old son on a trip to Atlanta. When they arrived, he took her to a hotel and ordered her to prostitute for him, according to Lt. Todd Stetzer of the Fitchburg Police Department. She refused, and the man allegedly traded her to another pimp, who advertised her for “adult services” on the site backpage.com, she later told police.
Detectives located her in Georgia by tracking her cellphone. They put up posters in the area where they detected her signal, and a clerk at the hotel where she was being held saw one and alerted police.
One of the thorniest problems with Wisconsin’s 2008 trafficking law was the requirement that victims had to prove they participated in prostitution or other crimes without their consent.
“You have a woman or man who is engaging in prostitution and you ask them if they are doing this consensually and they say, ‘yes.’ But the surrounding circumstances might be that she consented because he (the trafficker) threatened to beat her family up, not feed her or withhold drugs,” said Assistant Attorney General Karie Cattanach, who handles sex trafficking cases and acts as a resource for other prosecutors. “So, you’re telling a jury on one hand that not consenting is a factor, but on the other hand you’ve got the victim saying, ‘Yes, I consented.’”
“If I say, ‘Give me your wallet,’ and you do, then a defense attorney can say that you consented to give up the wallet,” added Assistant Attorney General Winn Collins, who works on the legislative side of the issue. He said the focus should be on the threat or force used to obtain the wallet rather than the fact you complied. Collins and Cattanach said the new law does exactly that by eliminating “non-consent” as an element of trafficking.
“The prosecutor still has to prove coercion, but (the new law) takes the focus away from the consent and puts the focus on the offender’s conduct,” Collins said. “The directions to the jury don’t stress consent.”
Another major change in the law is that it allows evidence of similar acts of trafficking and child sex crimes committed by the accused to be admissible in court.
The new law also allows for a unified process to incorporate the forfeiture of property in a trafficking case.
Other changes to the law will make it fairer for victims. For example, the new law will limit the ability to prosecute minors for prostitution. It will also allow victims of sex trafficking to have convictions for prostiution vacated or expunged.
Despite all the improvements in the state’s trafficking law, people who provide services to victims say that more education of law-enforcement officers is critical to addressing the problem, as is increased funding for support services. As more cases are identified, the inadequate web of services currently helping victims is going to be stretched to the breaking point, according to service providers.
Meanwhile, service providers across the country are not waiting for — or counting on — more effective laws to help identify and rescue victims. They’re utilizing every approach they can think of, and some of them are quite creative.
For instance, the Polaris Project, a group that combats modern-day slavery and human trafficking, puts its national helpline number on bars of soap and shampoo bottles in hotels hosting large events that are likely to attract prostitution.
The number is 888-373- 7888.
Editor’s Note: This article includes information provided by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. You can find the center online at www.wisconsinwatch.org.
The scope of the human trafficking is vast and growing, thanks to the ease of Internet solicitation and transporting of victims. While a bag of cocaine can be sold just once, a body can be sold repeatedly for labor or sex, making human trafficking more profitable than the drug trade.
• It’s estimated that at least 27 million people globally are living in slavery.
• Approximately 600,000 to 800,000 victims are trafficked across international borders every year.
• Annual profits from human trafficking total $32 billion, making it the second largest criminal enterprise after drug trafficking.
• The present rate of child trafficking is 10 times higher than it was during the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 18th centuries.
• An estimated 1 million children are exploited by global commercial sex trade every year. Nationally, the average age of a new child prostitute is 13.
• Between 14,500 and 17,500 children and adults are trafficked into the United States every year.
• About 85 percent of sex trafficking cases involve women and girls, but males and transgendered people are also victims.