Sex Trafficking

Cat Jacoby, with the Eau Claire non-profit Fierce Freedom, spoke to students, professors and community members about human trafficking in Wisconsin on Tuesday.


The girl looked about 16, with brown hair just past her shoulder. She may have been wearing shorts, may have been barefoot—that April afternoon had been warm. But it just happened so quickly.

Emma Lutzke does remember the girl’s large, tired eyes that seemed to be looking for someone as she transferred from the dark green sedan into a low-roofed black car with tinted windows and no license plate. 

Lutzke, from Eau Claire, had been driving northbound on Hwy. 53 and exited at Chetek, behind the sedan. 

She saw it pull over, and the black car come alongside it. Then the quick exchange. The sedan turned onto Hwy. 53 south. The black vehicle took Hwy. 53 north, with the girl.

Lutzke called the police. 

“If it doesn’t feel right, call,” she said, months later. The police did not locate the vehicle. It isn’t known if she witnessed a frosty custody exchange or friends coordinating rides after a long Saturday night or something more insidious. 

Sex trafficking has been reported in all 72 counties of Wisconsin, and the Human Trafficking Hotline received 134 Wisconsin reports in 2018.

Highways that cross the state facilitate both traditional and illicit commerce between the Twin Cities, Chicago and Milwaukee—which became known as “the Harvard of Pimp School” after consistently ranking in the top five cities for recovery of adolescent human trafficking victims in the early 2010s.

Underground above ground

“Force, fraud and coercion,” Cat Jacoby said, speaking to more than 100 people in a Rice Lake WITC conference room on Tuesday. “If those are present, human trafficking is present.”

Jacoby is with Fierce Freedom, a non-profit group out of Eau Claire that has been working to abolish human trafficking for 7 years.

Jacoby explained that the legal definition of human trafficking can be boiled down to those three words: force, fraud and coercion. 

She said its victims are tethered by psychological chains, not physical ones.

The fear of traffickers doing harm to them or their families, the fear of being deported and language barriers are reasons victims do not come forward, according to a 2013 Department of Justice assessment.

A trafficker may hold onto identification papers like passports and birth certificates, making it hard for a victim to live if they do decide to escape. 

A teenage victim may not realize an older boyfriend or girlfriend’s affections aren’t genuine. 

Out of 99 substantiated cases of child sex trafficking in Wisconsin from June 1, 2017-Aug. 31, 2018, 58% were children 15 or 16 years of age, according to a report from Child Protective Services. 

How to spot it 

Many victims are vulnerable youth. From Jan. 1, 2013-Dec. 31, 2016, a survey of the 231 out of the 340 individuals age 25 and under either confirmed or believed to be sex trafficking victims in Milwaukee  found 55% to be juveniles, 97% were females and all to be U.S. citizens. 

Awareness campaigns ran through government agencies and non- and for-profit businesses teach hotel workers, hospital workers, taxi drivers, bartenders, airline employees, drivers and the average citizen what to look for and where. 

Jacoby said hotel workers watch for signs like single females requesting a room with two beds or a “do not disturb” sign on a room with heavy foot traffic. 

Truck stops have a reputation of workers bringing sex to the cab before moving to the next pull-off. Truckers Against Trafficking has trained over 750,000 drivers to spot and report trafficking.

Brick and mortar brothels in the form of  erotic massage parlors make $2.5 billion annually, according to the Polaris Project, a non-profit that keeps trafficking data and operates the national hotline. 

In July, law enforcement shut down two parlors, and their operator was charged in Eau Claire County Court with human trafficking. Two buyers were charged with soliciting prostitution.

Online sex 

The easiest and most popular way to purchase sex is online. Jacoby said that is where 70% of child sex victims are sold. 

Advertisements for sex workers were categorized and easy to find on notorious online prostitution sites like Craigslist’s personal ads (voluntarily removed in March 2018 after Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,) and Backpage, (seized by federal law enforcement the next month, resulting in 93 charges against seven people).

Backpage had a monopoly on the online sex trade, according to Reuters reporting on a study that determined demand for prostitution decreased  67% and search volume plummeted 90% immediately after the site went offline.

These sites were quickly replaced by competitors and dating apps and according to Reuters, each new site only took up 5-8% of what Backpage had been bringing in. 

Which makes it much harder for law enforcement to track. 

Tracking traffickers

Rice Lake Police say they have not had any cases that would fit the definition of human trafficking or sex trafficking, and the Barron County District Attorney’s Office stated no law enforcement agencies have referred human trafficking charges to its office. 

The Barron County Sheriff’s Department believes the demand is here. Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald told the group that during last year’s presentation, the department posted an advertisement for a young sex worker charging by the half-hour at a hotel. The ad’s contact address was linked to the sheriff’s phone, which pinged 23 times by the end of the hour long presentation. 

“If we are going to fight trafficking, we have to talk demand,” Jacoby said on Tuesday.

Demand is tricky. For example, how many ad responses can be attributed to online bots and scammers and how many to potential buyers?

When now Texas Governor Gregg Abbot called the Super Bowl one of the biggest human trafficking events in the U.S. in 2011 it created headlines. News agencies, organizations and activists have gone with it, saying there is an upwards of 90% increase in sex trafficking.  

This isn’t true, according to stories by Reuters, CNN, Slate, Sports Illustrated and more that looked into data and interviewed advocates and experts. 

There’s no doubt trafficking increases, though not nearly that much (one study put it at 5-20%), but it increases for other events and holidays, too.

What does go up is law enforcement activity, which helps arrest people who traffic sex workers every day.

Decriminalizing sex work

Minnesota passed a safe harbor law in 2011 that insures that a person under the age of 18 cannot be put in jail for prostitution. 

A victim support initiative called No Wrong Door was enacted 2 years later.

A study released in 2017 by the Minnesota Department of Health determined 1,423 youth were granted safe harbor in a 26 month period. 

The study included a survey where 86% of respondents said that awareness of human trafficking had increased in their communities.

Nearly every youth and young adult respondent reported learning about maintaining personal safety and how to identify abusive relationships.

Wisconsin does not have a safe harbor law, and a minor could be jailed for prostitution after being a victim of statutory rape. 

The Wisconsin Department of Justice does not recommend law enforcement arrest a trafficking victim for a law violation as a strategy for separating them from their trafficker.

Its protocol and resource manual published in 2012 recommends district attorney offices to take a victim-centered approach to addressing trafficking. 

Safety concerns should be evaluated, interpreter services obtained if needed and an advocate should access the victim’s needs and inform them of their rights.

“Victims are better served when they have access to a broad array of supports and services,” according to the manual.

Sheriff Fitzgerald said his department takes a victim-centered approach and would work with the Department of Human Services to meet victims’ needs.

Be aware

Human trafficking isn’t obvious, that’s why it’s successful.

Victims who feel threatened may not want to talk, and some victims may not even know they’re being used. 

It starts with being aware and offering help. 

Jacoby told the audience to remember details like license plates or tattoos. “We are the eyes and ears of law enforcement,” she said.

If they see something not quite right, they should say something. 

The Barron County hotline is 715-537-5691 or after-hours, 715-537-3106.

The national hotline is 1-888-373-7888.


(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

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