On July 29, the Federal Bureau of Investigation trumpeted the results of a three-day sting in 46 cities around the country combating sex trafficking. According to the FBI, law enforcement rescued 105 children who had been sexually exploited, arresting 150 pimps and others involved.
In Wisconsin, police rescued 10 children from trafficking, including two 17-year-old girls in Madison.
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen was quick to praise the efforts, saying: "Children rescued as a result of these types of operations are often vulnerable and have been misled with promises of food, shelter and a future, and oftentimes, love, only to be ensnared into a life of isolation, intimidation, violence and sex trafficking."
But whether the victims swept up in the sting were actually rescued remains to be seen. One of the two girls found in Madison spent several days in the Dane County Jail, facing a felony charge for a related offense. Isthmus could not confirm details regarding the other victim with law enforcement or advocates. The situation underscores the fact that simply finding a trafficking victim does not guarantee he or she will be helped.
JoAnn Gruber-Hagen, founder of the advocacy group Slave Free Madison, says, "It would be more appropriate to say 'two people were removed from trafficking.' 'Rescue' would imply they are in a safe place, and unfortunately that's not the case."
It's happening here
The term "sex trafficking" is somewhat deceptive, conjuring images of people being kidnapped in developing countries and forced into slavery in a foreign land. Foreign victims do sometimes end up trafficked to Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found in a 2011 report that people had been trafficked to Wisconsin from 17 countries. But for the most part, when authorities talk about trafficking victims, they're referring to people who already live here.
"When they created this term, they took it off arms and drug trafficking, so they called it 'human trafficking,'" says Gruber-Hagen. "What it connotes is you go from point A to point B. But movement is not a requirement for it to occur. You can be trafficked in your own home."
Slave Free Madison defines human trafficking as "recruiting, harboring, obtaining or transporting a person by means of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation, commercial sex acts or labor exploitation."
It's hard to know how widespread the crime is. Says Gruber-Hagen, "No one really is required to keep track of this stuff."
Numbers vary greatly. The Polaris Project, a national anti-trafficking organization, reports that its National Human Trafficking Resource Center received 124 calls from Wisconsin in 2012 regarding trafficking, referencing four potential victims. The Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission recently reported (PDF) that between Aug. 1, 2010, and Aug. 1, 2012, there were 77 youths sexually trafficked in the city, including 25 between the ages of 12 and 15.
Jan Miyasaki, director of Project Respect, the main advocacy and outreach group for prostitutes and trafficking victims in Madison, says her agency aided 34 human trafficking victims in 2012, of which six were juveniles.
Lt. June Groehler of the Madison Police Department says the crime is happening in Madison. "This was a problem once assumed only in developing nations, but it lurks on our street corners," she says. "It's a complex societal problem. Statistics on how many people are victimized vary widely."
Jeanne Schneider, clinical and program coordinator at Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin, or Briarpatch, says her agency only recently began addressing the issue of trafficking. "We're seeing more and more of it, and that's because we're asking more questions."
The agency expected to see one or two cases of sexually trafficked youth a year, Schneider says. But in the first three months of addressing the issue, it identified 10 victims.
Victims directed to services
Finding out how trafficking manifests itself locally is also difficult.
Groehler declines to give details about how the Madison Police Department identifies victims. "Some of that I don't want to release, because if we put that out there, people just change their ways and make it harder to identify," she says.
Leonard Peace, a spokesman for the FBI's office in Milwaukee, says victims in the July sting were identified during the sting itself, in a nationwide push to rescue minors called "Operation Cross Country." "With our law enforcement partners, we targeted online forums and conducted street-level operations," he says.
Schneider says Briarpatch doesn't press youths for details of how they are exploited.
"A lot of the youth are not being very forthcoming. The majority of them have not said 'I'm trading sex for a place to sleep,'" she says. "We don't want to scare youth off by demanding those answers. Briarpatch is a safe place, and we want kids to feel safe here."
In some situations, it's clear something is amiss. Schneider gives the example of a teenager who frequently runs away from home, only to appear days later with expensive clothing, jewelry or other items with no obvious explanation for how she got them.
"I can't say 'here's a kid who has been stuck in a house for a year providing sex to 10 men on a daily basis,'" Schneider says. "It's just clear that something is going on."
Peace says the FBI doesn't keep tabs on what happens to victims after they're rescued from trafficking. "The victims are directed to services that are able to help them get through their circumstances. There are a number of nongovernmental agencies that law enforcement works with, such as job training, housing and counseling," he says. "When we take the victims off the street, we direct them to these services."
In a follow-up email, Peace adds: "Victim specialists try working with all juveniles identified during the operation. Some juveniles are receptive, but others are not."
Juvenile code conflicts
In 1995, Wisconsin changed its juvenile code, requiring that anyone 17 or older who is charged with a crime must be treated as an adult. That change creates a conflict when it comes to dealing with 17-year-old victims. The term "child prostitute" is an oxymoron. Says Schneider: "Legally, in the state of Wisconsin, a youth cannot consent for sex under the age of 18."
Of the two 17-year-old girls who were swept up in the July sting, one spent several days in the Dane County Jail on a gun charge. Her attorney said her family declined to comment to the media or allow an interview with the girl. Isthmus could not determine the whereabouts of the other 17-year-old caught up in the sting.
"There was no place for those two kids to go," laments Gruber-Hagen.
Of the girl who was not put in the Dane County Jail, she says, "As far as we know, she is on her own. No one seems to know where she is right now. She had not broken a law."
The law creates a complicated situation for 17-year-olds who have been trafficked. Lynn Green, director of Dane County Human Services, says that when any 17-year-old is charged as an adult, he or she no longer qualifies for juvenile services related to that crime. "They're not served through the juvenile system anymore," she says. "They're under the supervision of the adult system."
Green says the county can be involved whenever someone younger than 17 is found to have been sexually exploited. Juvenile court can mandate services. Green says the county can also provide services to 17-year-olds who have been trafficked, placing them in foster homes or providing mental health services -- as long as they haven't been charged with a crime.
If the teenager is charged as an adult, human services doesn't get involved, Green says. "We have a lot more services for minors than potentially an adult."
Project Respect's Miyasaki says 17-year-olds charged as adults are put in a tough spot. "They're still too young for adult services. They're sort of in this nowhere land."
While she's never seen a 17-year-old charged with prostitution in Dane County, Miyasaki says many end up being charged with other crimes. "Sex trafficking victims [adults and minors] are frequently charged with crimes," she adds. "Victims could be coerced into committing crimes unrelated to prostitution under threat of being forced to prostitute if she doesn't cooperate. But this threat isn't disclosed to law enforcement by victims due to concern for their own safety."
When prosecutors are aware that girls have been trafficked, they might look for a charge, simply to get them off the streets, Gruber-Hagen says. "Oftentimes prosecutors will look for a violation of a law for the purpose of getting them out of that situation," she says. "The other option is to say, 'You're a victim, out the door you go.'"
Green says the county would "absolutely intervene" when it is made aware of situations involving trafficked children. But she adds, "It doesn't have to be referred to us, and we may never hear about it."
Legislators frequently attempt to change the law to return nonviolent 17-year-olds to the juvenile system, but the idea has yet to find broad support. Wisconsin is one of 11 states that treat 17-year-old offenders as adults. A new bill was introduced last week, but a Wisconsin State Journal article quotes Attorney General Van Hollen's office as being opposed to the idea.
Green would like to see 17-year-olds returned to the juvenile system but adds, "They took the resources away, so we'd need funding to be able to serve them again."
Shelter for minors needed
One of the main objectives of Slave Free Madison is to push for a homeless shelter where minors can go without needing parental consent or the permission of a judge.
In Wisconsin, minors are allowed to stay in a shelter for a night, but then must go to court to get permission to stay longer. "At least there are shelters that adults can go to that are safe," Gruber-Hagen says.
While Madison and other cities have shelters that can take in victims of trafficking, there are none here where minors can go for the long term.
"There are very few shelters for youth, mainly because there are laws that restrict how long a youth can be kept without a parent's approval," Gruber-Hagen says. "Usually they go into child protective services."
Gruber-Hagen would also like to see more funding for the issue. "Right now there are no state dollars devoted to actually helping victims after they have been removed from the trafficking situation."
Slave Free Madison's goal is to raise public awareness. "I've always thought of Madison as a pretty progressive city," Gruber-Hagen says. "But people will just say, 'oh, human trafficking, glad it doesn't happen here.'"
She adds: "There's a lack of readiness of the people of Madison as a whole to accept the fact that this goes on every day in Madison."