When JoAnn Gruber-Hagen talks about human trafficking, the crime where people are manipulated, exploited and enslaved for sex or other work, she’s often asked from where the victims come.
“Where they’re coming from is Madison,” she said.
Gruber-Hagen is the chair of Slave Free Madison, a group formed in 2014 to curb the demand for sex and labor trafficking in the city. She and nearly 100 other Christian, Jewish and Muslim members of Madison’s faith community gathered Sunday at the Fitchburg Public Library to hear a panel of local experts on the subject and learn and what they can do to fight the problem.
“Our overall goal is to educate people about how invasive this problem is. It’s not over there, it’s here,” said Mary Fiore, who also leads the group.
Sex and labor trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide, and has become more visible in the U.S. over the last decade. There are about 20.9 million victims of human trafficking, both sex and labor, worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization. Camp Randall could be filled four times with the number of children who have been trafficked in the United States each year, according to Slave Free Madison.
Homelessness and drug addiction is a common route to trafficking for children, said Tyler Schueffner, an outreach worker at Briarpatch Youth Services, which runs a homeless shelter for children under 18 in Madison.
“We increasingly became more and more aware that the vast majority of people we worked with had experienced some form of sexual exploitation,” he said. “Runaway youth are at a disproportionate risk for human trafficking.”
In 2014, about one out of six runaways nationwide reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely sex trafficking victims, according Polaris, a national anti-trafficking advocacy organization.
In Madison, Briarpatch is the first and only shelter in the city to house homeless and runaway youth, but funding is finite, and challenges remain, Schueffner said. The facility has eight beds, but children are not locked in and can come and go when they please, which can make it difficult to connect them to help if they are not willing, he said.
The teens Schueffner works with who have been trafficked for sex often see it as a way to survive, to make ends meet, he said. The problem is spread across demographics, including among mothers trying to provide for their children and teens from more affluent, stable households, he said.
Mental illness, which is common among the teens Schueffner works with, also makes adolescents more susceptible to trafficking, he said.
Physical symptoms also arise in victims though virtually no doctors, both in the emergency room or in clinics, are trained to recognize symptoms of sex trafficking in their patients, said Dr. Mollie Kane, a physician with Access Community Health Center.
Few physicians understand the complex power and relationship dynamics between victims and traffickers and are not trained on the issue in medical school, she said.
“The majority of trafficked youth I work with have pimps,” she said. “These are often children looking for love.”
Kane said she has seen patients try to protect their pimps and will try to go back to them even after they’ve been threatened.
“I’ve had people say that their pimp would try to kill them but then also say ‘I love him, I need to go back,’” she said.
Sexually transmitted disease, along with chronic vaginitis and pelvic pain are common among sex trafficking victims she sees, Kane said. Boys do experience sexual exploitation too, but don’t have the same visible medical repercussions, she said.
The state has struggled to respond efficiently and effectively to the issue, said state Rep. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee.
“This state does nothing for runaways,” she said.
She has introduced a bill in the state Assembly that would require the Department of Children and Family Services to investigate more cases of suspected trafficking, which requires more funding.
The bill would expand the definition of child sex trafficking under state law and make it a form of abuse under the Children’s Code. It would also require the department to do additional reporting of sex trafficking and investigate trafficking cases. Under current law, the agency investigates only if the perpetrator in the case is a caregiver of the victim.
Wisconsin enacted its first law defining and outlawing human trafficking in 2008, but a 2013 state Department of Justice report found that the state lacks services for victims and training for how to respond to trafficking and doesn’t have accurate data on how often it is occurring.
Although human trafficking has been reported in every county in Wisconsin, prosecutions are often rare because of the complexity of the cases. Attorney General Brad Schimel has said human trafficking is a priority for his agency and says he has organized initiatives to combat it. The state Department of Justice has established a Crime Victims Council of police officers, prosecutors, teachers, social workers and attorneys to work on the issue. The Wisconsin Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force has also been formed to coordinate prevention, data collection, training and services across regional anti-trafficking groups statewide.
“To all the Johns, those who are creating the demand for this modern-day slavery: We are coming for you. Right now, law enforcement officers in all corners of the state are being trained to identify, investigate and prosecute human trafficking,” he said in a letter in the Cap Times.