Child sex trafficking identified in every Wisconsin county

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Morgan Young, victim services training officer from the Wisconsin Office of Crime Victim Services, was in Prairie du Chien Oct. 30 for a two-hour public presentation about human trafficking, how it looks and what can be done about it. (Photo by Correne Martin)

Horrors of human trafficking crimes not exactly like what you see in the movies

By Correne Martin

People ordinarily interpret human trafficking to be something like the horrors of the action-thriller movie “Taken.” Though it absolutely happens, that’s not what human trafficking looks like in Wisconsin, according to Morgan Young, victim services training officer with the Wisconsin Office of Crime Victim Services. 

The film portrays the kidnapping and sex trafficking of mainly young, privileged white women into an international human slavery ring, from which—in true Hollywood fashion—a rescue constitutes the end of the story.

In reality, the definition of human trafficking is the recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, obtaining or attempting to maintain a person through force, fraud and coercion for labor, services or commercial sex acts, Young said. 

“Child sex trafficking has been identified in every Wisconsin county,” she said.

The speaker was in Prairie du Chien Oct. 30, for a presentation on the recognizing and reporting the signs of human trafficking to about 50 individuals from various public sectors. The mission of Young’s program was to share the raw truths of this violent crime as well as the fact that every sector of society can play a role in combating this problem. 

Representing Crawford, Grant, Vernon and La Crosse counties, attendees were advocates for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, probation and social work clients, the aging and disability population, and the low-income and homeless communities. Professionals from the law enforcement, medical, legal, faith-based and economic development fields also participated. 

Who are the 

victims/survivors?

Recent studies show that 15 is the average age a female becomes trafficked. Though traffickers are disproportionately male, they aren’t always, according to Young. They can be men, women, husbands, wives, neighbors or coworkers of all races, genders and cultures. 

Young said the LGBTQ community, illegal immigrants, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, low-income individuals, children from broken or foster families, and drug addicts are some the most vulnerable. She said this is because the traffickers believe they can more effortlessly control, bribe or threaten these types of people’s needs.

“Kids who have experienced trauma, for example, already have confused feelings, low self-esteem, susceptibility to addiction, or their needs aren’t being met,” she discussed. “That’s easier for someone to exploit.”

Other risk factors of people who may be swept up into trafficking include impulsivity, interest in risk-taking, desire for love and acceptance, low self-worth, family conflict, mental health issues, physical abuse history, substance abuse, loneliness, poverty, limited language abilities, a lack of understanding rights and laws, criminal records, minimal education and workforce skills, cultural shame and more. 

“Sometimes it’s really hard to reprogram people [to believe] they have more to offer than [sex],” Young said. “They can feel like they’ve chosen this.”

What does it look like?

“There’s a lot of imagery out there about human trafficking that shows young, blonde white girls in shackles, ropes or binding, beaten and crying out for help. We need to think beyond those images; trafficking also means threatening to cause harm,” Young implored. 

“Immigrants who are here legally are not going to report crimes if they don’t have official documents available to them. That’s one of the first things traffickers take from them,” she continued. “If a girl is in sex work or conducting a theft, the trafficker uses that as intimidation to not leave because they’re violating laws. A trafficker can also control an addict by promising the girl her next ‘bump’ if she get’s him $12,000. Or oftentimes, he can use threats to harm a child in order to control a mom.”

In non-scripted real life, it’s not that common for traffickers to “sell off” their victims. The simple fact is that it is more profitable to force victims into prostitution, where they can be “sold” over and over again.

According to Young’s power point, human trafficking involving minors may also include dancing, videography and exposure, aside from sex, even if the child “consents.”

“They can’t legally consent,” she declared. “If something of value is exchanged, it’s commercial (sexual exploitation). If the victim needs something to eat, a couch to sleep on or shoes—any commodity that’s traded—it’s commercial (sexual exploitation). And it doesn’t matter if it’s promised for the victim or somebody else. They’re being abused and manipulated; they’re not making their own choices.”

That hierarchy of power and control is the reason most victims are not easily convinced that law enforcement, social workers or other crisis professionals are there to help them. A young woman might need help and services, but as Young said, she still may feel like a “bad kid who is going to be punished.”

“We want to break that cycle before someone slips into it,” Young said, “before they feel like the trafficker is someone they love and trust, and how dare any of us gets between that relationship.”

She added that these cases look a lot like domestic violence situations: “It takes a victim of domestic violence an average of seven times to leave and get out for good. It oftentimes takes trafficking victims longer than that.”

How does it happen?

Human trafficking can begin in any seemingly innocent way, as Young described. 

A confident “recruiter” sits in a public space like a mall food court, watching for targets, and eventually engages in a flirtatious and caring conversation with one he selects, based on downcast body language, for instance. He asks to exchange numbers, and they start a text conversation or interaction by way of a mobile application.

“If he sees a girl who’s all hunched over and sad-looking, these non-verbal cues are the perfect signal for him,” Young expounded.

Once the trafficker feels solid in his enticement of a target, grooming begins. He invests time and money on gifts and works to build trust and a sense of belonging with the victim. He might say things like, “It’s you and me against the world,” or “No one else values you like I do.” This breaks down the individual’s identity so he can rebuild it how he wants it. Manipulation increases an, eventually, the trafficker tests his victim’s sexual boundaries.

The actual trafficking happens at the point when the relationship fully shifts to psychological control and the victim being “lured into a hell they have little to no hope” of escaping, Young explained.

What can be done?

Knowing that 95 percent of human trafficking victims are chemically-dependent and 90 percent have prior criminal records, Young is a proponent for more intensive substance abuse treatment in Wisconsin. 

Such survivor assistance is only part of a coordinated statewide strategic force through the Department of Justice that is “six mighty officers strong,” Young said. 

Additional goals of the response team are to identify, target and prosecute traffickers; connect with service providers like Catholic Charities, Passages and social services to build a greater team; relocate survivors across the state; continue shutting down and making sex-buying websites illegal; and record and report the signs that are “hidden in plain sight.”

Shedding light on those signs, Young said general citizens can look out for the following instances common around places like hotels, casinos and truck stops:

1) a constant flow of men into a room at all hours of the night; 2) individuals being constantly monitored; 3) couples and groups who don’t seem age-appropriate; 4) extended stays of individuals with few or no personal possessions; 5) signs of physical abuse, fear, malnourishment or dehydration; 6) people rarely leaving a hotel room; 7) exterior side and back doors propped open; 8) minors under the influence and in the company of adults; 9) rooms paid by cash or prepaid credit cards; 10) someone who doesn’t know her whereabouts or has no sense of time; 11) tattoos or other matching branding of young women; or 12) patrons asking about access to adult sex services. 

Young followed up these indicators by saying, “Evil flourishes when good people do nothing. We have to stand up, rally around these vulnerable individuals and do something.”

She cautioned, however, that good Samaritans should never intervene. They should call law enforcement if they see something suspicious.  

In recording observations, concerned citizens should record what raised their concerns; dates, times and locations; names, phone numbers and room numbers; vehicle descriptions; trafficker and victim descriptions; direction of travel and by what transportation mode; if they asked for directions, etc.

Young said this is because investigators need a lot of evidence to make a case—a process than can take months or even years before someone can be taken into custody for human trafficking.

She concluded, “Usually, once one victim discloses, other (victims or sex buyers) will come forward, because it’s rare for traffickers to have just one victim.”

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