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Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire)

Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) at a rally for "Safe Harbor" legislation Tuesday.

Morgan Meadows was just 3 when she was trafficked for the first time, and didn’t escape trafficking — sexual and otherwise — until she was in her 20s. She said gaining freedom “was one of the scariest things I ever did.”

But she later went on to earn her master's degree in education and now works to support survivors because of her "passion for human rights,” she said.

“I had to learn what it feels like to actually have rights.”

Meadow is not a Wisconsin native, but if she had been discovered by police in Wisconsin as a child or teenager, she could have been charged with the crime of prostitution.

Victims of human trafficking, especially children, may feel trapped or even develop a bond with their abusers, advocates say. That’s why they support "Safe Harbor" legislation, which would prohibit minors from being prosecuted for prostitution. 

Supporters have previously tried to get the bill passed through the Wisconsin Legislature, but advocates are optimistic that increased understanding of the issue will make it a reality this time around.

Advocates gathered for a rally earlier this week at St. John’s Lutheran Church in downtown Madison before taking a cold walk to the Capitol to knock on representatives' doors to ask them to co-sponsor the bill.

The rally was organized by the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin. Originally, LOPPW was expecting 40 to 50 people at the event, but the snow and cold weather left about two dozen people to make signs and listen to speakers in the sanctuary.

Rep. Jill Billings ,D-La Crosse, Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee are authors of the proposed legislation (currently known as LRB 0568). Advocates say the bill would ensure minors are not punished for the actions of abusers. 

“There is no such thing as a child prostitute. There is a child who is abused,” said Rev. Cindy Crane, director of LOPPW.

Jan Miyazaki is the director of Project Respect, a service and advocacy center for women with prostitution histories, and has said she sees about 50 to 75 cases of women in the sex trade a year “involving force, fraud or coercion.”

Miyazaki said that traffickers can control victims by offering them affection, money, a sense of safety or a sense of family. They “groom children through isolation, the use of control and the breaking down and rebuilding of the child’s identity,” she said.

She also pointed to the negative power of labeling a child a “prostitute.”

“What comes to mind when we hear the terms ‘child or teen prostitute’?” she asked. “How do these words impact how children are seen and treated and how they feel about themselves?”

The Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault has previously said the guilt and shame of being treated as a criminal may retraumatize children already suffering from guilt and shame at the hands of their abusers.

Even teens who are not charged with prostitution may end up with other charges on their records, advocates say.

“There are many judges who do not charge young people for prostitution, but they still might have another charge, like lewd and lascivious behavior,” Crane said.

Advocates point out that other states have already enacted similar laws. Minnesota passed comprehensive human trafficking legislation, including a safe harbor provision, in 2011, and trafficking convictions increased dramatically.

“We are now seeing that many of the victims — because we view them as victims and we want to help them instead of running them through the delinquency system — are willing to tell their story and come forward,” Minnesota Ramsey County Attorney John Choi told the Star Tribune.

FAILED ATTEMPTS

The bill failed to pass in the 2015 and 2017 biennium legislative sessions. Previously, critics of such a law — including former Attorney General Brad Schimel and Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton — have said the legislation’s unintended consequences would limit the overall ability of law enforcement to serve victims.

In previous public testimony, Schimel said it’s sometimes necessary to use the authority of criminal laws and briefly detain the child in order to remove a child from an unsafe place, and Loudenbeck said custody may also be necessary to ensure the child does not return to his or her trafficker.

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Loudenbeck also said she was worried that the bill would present a “legal loophole” that would encourage traffickers to recruit minors.

On Tuesday, Loudenbeck’s chief of staff Danielle Zimmerman said that Loudenbeck “maintains her position that so-called ’safe-harbor’ legislation is unnecessary in Wisconsin and may have unintended consequences.”

But Schimel has since reversed his position and testified in favor of the bill. Though he’s no longer attorney general, his change of heart is one reason advocates think the bill has better chances this session. 

And with each attempt, the legislation is gaining steam, advocates said.

“Each time we’ve presented this bill, and we’ve done it three times before, it’s gotten a little further in the process, we’ve gotten more co-sponsors, we’ve gotten more movement,” said Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire.

Emerson, who previously advocated for the bill and plans to co-sponsor it as a legislator, thinks that has to do with increased awareness and understanding of human trafficking, much of which she credited to the work of statewide religious and advocacy groups.

“Now people understand that it’s happening here … that human trafficking is the buying and selling of people and we need to hold people accountable for it and we need to get victims the help they need,” Emerson said.

SAFE HARBOR FOR ALL

In offering “safe harbor,” advocates hope that needed support will be given to all missing children, not just high profile cases.

Meadows pointed to the story of recently recovered Jayme Closs. She said the same attention is not often afforded to missing kids labeled as runaways, aging out of foster care or kids who have been in and out of trouble.

“We have no problem as a society getting behind that and going, ‘Wow, let’s find her, let’s find her, let’s find her,’” Meadows said, and yet “being abducted by a stranger is the least common way in which people are actually brought into trafficking.”

“We tend not to look for women of color, girls of color, children of color. We tend not to look for those that have special needs,” said Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America bishop. “Those are the children that disproportionately get charged and go into the system, are those children of color.”

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