“My aunt was trading me for sex for drugs. Nobody knew in school. I was already an abused child taken out of my mother’s home. I didn’t want to tell them — I didn’t want to get my aunt in trouble.”

People who attend presentations put on by SlaveFree Madison, a human trafficking awareness and advocacy organization, generally know that trafficking is an issue. They have a harder time believing it happens in Madison.

“The number one thing is people will say is, ‘I’m just glad it doesn’t happen in Madison, this is terrible.’ But it does,” said JoAnn Gruber-Hagen, a founding member and advocacy chair of SlaveFree.

That girl being trafficked by her aunt was a 15-year-old East High School student. Her story was documented in 2011 study titled “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: Dane County Needs Assessment.”

“Madison, the best city for fill-in-the-blank. That isn’t consistent with thinking that right now kids are … out there being forced to have sex for someone's profit," Gruber-Hagen said. 

That’s where the “WI, We Need to Talk” campaign steps in. It officially launched on Friday and will last through the summer on billboards, posters and social media to highlight youth sex trafficking.

The campaign website at WisconsinTalks.org says: “About youth sex trafficking. It’s OK to talk about it. In fact, we encourage it.”

Any minor engaging in commercial sex for money, food, shelter, drugs, alcohol or safety is considered a sex trafficking victim, according to federal law. The Department of Children and Families realized many Wisconsinites think it's something that happens overseas, said Joe Scialfa, communications director at DCF.

“It became very clear that we needed to have a public awareness campaign to make people understand it's happening right here in our neighborhoods, possibly to people we know and love,” he said.

Trafficking is a relatively well-documented problem in Milwaukee; a recent report found there were 340 confirmed or likely sex trafficking victims aged 25 and under between 2013 to 2016, and that's thought to be an underestimate.

Statewide, a law change now requires that youth suspected of being trafficked be reported to child welfare, allowing the state to start collecting data, but it doesn't yet have enough information for data analysis. Although there aren't specific numbers for Dane County, trafficking has definitely happened here, Scialfa said. 

“My Mom died of cancer … I needed some money. I started to prostitute with older men. Off the streets — south side, east side for sure, north side, west side — really you could find tricks in any part of town. It happens all over,” reads another narrative from a victim who was first trafficked at 13, as told in the 2011 Dane County study.

That study asked local agencies to estimate how many trafficking victims they’d served, and “the most compelling data” came from a Dane County Juvenile Detention Center pediatrician, the study said.

“She reports weekly interaction with patients who are trading sex for a place to stay or to meet their basic need. The doctor estimates that 90% of girls in the Juvenile Detention Center have some history of DMST (domestic minor sex trafficking).”

In a 2016 Wisconsin State Journal article, Detective Maya Krajcinovic of the Madison Police Department talked about the prevalence of men preying on teens in the mall food court.

"There's a ton of runaways here," Krajcinovic said. "They're very naive. It takes 20 minutes in a food court to be manipulated into the lifestyle. They don't even know they're being victimized."

A survey from around 2008 by the Zonta Club of Madison found “limited awareness of human trafficking in the Madison-area.” The club then founded SlaveFree Madison in 2009 to build awareness and advocate for local responses.

Gruber-Hagen appreciates the DCF campaign, especially the materials like posters than can be used in SlaveFree's public education efforts in and around Dane County.

DCF hopes that the campaign leads people to the “WI, We Need to Talk” website, which offers a “very basic introduction” to the issues, said Dr. Joy Ippolito, anti-human trafficking coordinator for the Wisconsin DCF. It outlines indicators of youth sex trafficking, like a history of school truancy or an older romantic partner they won’t talk about, as well as guidance on when to contact CPS or law enforcement.

Scialfa and Ippolito encourage parents to talk to their children about what healthy relationships look like and to monitor their internet usage. SlaveFree believes in talking to teens about trafficking, but has met some resistance from parents, Gruber-Hagen said, who may consider the topic “too scary” or don’t see their kids as at risk.

“The hesitancy, almost the denial, that it can’t happen in Madison and it can’t happen to anybody I know … it just doesn’t open up a clear channel for dialog between adults and kids they care about,” she said.

Gruber-Hagen’s favorite new DCF campaign posters reads: “Talking about human trafficking is difficult. Experiencing it is harder.”

All adults — parents or not — have a role to play in protecting kids, Scialfa said, like simply watching for changes in the youth they know, noticing if they’re becoming more isolated from friends and family or start showing up with expensive clothes, jewelry or electronics.

Those signs don’t mean the child is a trafficking victim, but “noticing those things and starting to ask questions” is an important safeguard, Scialfa said.

The DCF also hopes to fight misconceptions about human trafficking, including a common confusion with child abduction. That makes people think youth are hidden away, or that trafficking only happens “in dark rooms somewhere,” Ippolito said.

But really, “you could pass them on the street or see them at a McDonalds,” she said. “We’re really trying to get that message out.”

Other misconceptions:

  • It’s not just youth from troubled homes that are vulnerable; with the rise of grooming kids online through mediums like Facebook or even SnapChat, “there’s lots of different levels of vulnerability,” Ippolito said.
  • Sex for money isn’t a victimless crime, done by choice and for profit: “It is manipulating these young people to have them first believe that this is how you're protected and this is how you show your love,” Scialfa said.
  • Sex trafficking can happen anywhere, including suburbs and rural areas.

“It’s not just a city issue and not just a good family-bad family issue, it’s an issue of young people who are feeling isolated and vulnerable, and having these people who are really good manipulators use that against them,” Scialfa said.

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