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This graph indicates the local agencies that offer the most services for child victims and adult victims.

When the La Crosse Task Force to Eradicate Modern Slavery was established in 2013, the perception of human trafficking in the area was largely one of denial and indifference. Almost four years later, the data is hard to ignore and the call to action more urgent.

“People didn’t think this was an issue ... the media wasn’t reporting on it,” said Sister Marlene Weisenbeck of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, one of the task force’s 50 members. “I’ve run into that attitude a lot — people aren’t ready to hear it, they don’t believe it. That’s changing with the awareness created.”

As part of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, TFEMS has released the results of a survey distributed to more than 80 La Crosse area law enforcement, human services, health care and educational organizations in December 2015. Thirty-nine responses were received, and, while 18 reported encounters with trafficking victims, 10 of the 39 organizations reported there was no training in place for handling the reports and six stated no efforts to raise awareness or promote prevention had been made. Though many were equipped to provide victims with medical and mental health services, few offer legal services, and trauma-informed care and coordinated local resources were identified as needs. Recognizing indicators of trafficking was cited as a lead barrier to service, along with lack of funding and local resources.

“We tried to get the survey in the hands of any agency that might meet a victim,” Weisenbeck said. “The next effort is to try to help organizations collaborate with one another.”

Wesisenback became passionate about the issue in 2012, when she was asked by the Obama administration to join the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.

“You come home and you’ve got this experience suddenly and you know you should do something about it,” Weisenbeck said. “A lot of people think the victims in the U.S. come from abroad, but over 80 percent come from here in the U.S. — Backpage.com is one of the biggest perpetrators.”

Backpage.com is the world’s largest classified advertisement site and posts more than a million sex ads per day, according to a 2016 report from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. In addition to sexual exploitation, human trafficking, which is a 9.2 billion dollar industry in the U.S., can also involve forced labor and involuntary domestic servitude, with an estimated 300,000 child victims averaging age 13.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline received 255 calls and 50 reports of human trafficking in Wisconsin between January and September 2016: 42 of the cases involved female victims, 13 of them minors. Of the 50, 41 cases involved sex trafficking, eight forced labor, and one a combination. Seventy-nine percent of the reports occurred in Milwaukee, but the La Crosse area was not immune, with a high-profile child trafficking and prostitution bust at a French Island motel in October 2015, and the recent sentencing of a Sparta man who lured three women into a prostitution ring with the promise of heroin and the threat of withdrawal.

Many victims are reluctant to come forward for fear of being prosecuted themselves. Wisconsin Act 367 was introduced in 2015 to require agencies to report children used for sex trafficking or prostitution as victims. In addition, the definition of trafficking was expanded to include transporting, patronizing or soliciting any child, or attempting to do so, for a commercial sex act. The law goes into effect May 29. Still, many victims find themselves powerless over the promise of money, drugs and security that traffickers provide.

“Some don’t want to leave — staying in a shelter is hard,” Weisenbeck said. “They make a lot more money from sex than they would at a minimum wage job, which is probably all they would qualify for without education and experience. “

Money was the hook for a local victim of familial trafficking, who goes by Terry Smith in publications, and who has worked closely with Weisenbeck and TFEMS. The Viroqua woman was trafficked from age 6, and she had her name legally changed and her records sealed five years ago.

“My family always helped me financially, but it always came at a cost,” Smith said. “And, when you’re on your own, your safety net is gone.”

Born to a fundamentalist Mormon family in the 1970s, Smith was living in Wisconsin when she was “married” at age 7 to a polygamist. She was physically and sexually abused and forced to smuggle drugs. A saving grace was public school, which she was required to attend after failing home schooling test requirements.

“Some of the teachers knew something was up, but they didn’t know what to do,” Smith said. “In (cults) like mine, they put people in positions of power, and they are the first to know when something is reported. It would have been really hard for them to do something for me, but they kind of adopted me ... they modeled a normal life for me.”

The teachers let her stay with them after school in the guise of hiring her to babysit and bought her “regular” clothes to wear during the school day so she would fit in.

Weisenbeck is quick to commend the good work schools do for victims, saying, “What Terry said about finding help at school is so important. Often times people are quick to say teachers and schools aren’t doing enough.”

Survey results confirmed area schools are in fact top sources of support, with Onalaska High School ranking sixth in most services available for child victims, and Western Technical College and the Holmen School District ranking first and sixth, respectively, for adult services.

Smith continued to find allies in college but remained under the grip of her traffickers.

“It’s very hard to get out of polygamy. I had gotten help from domestic violence programs at times, but I tried to walk a line of staying in touch just enough that they wouldn’t come after me,” Smith said. “But that was still just enough to give them control over me. I was too scared to turn in police reports because I had family members in the police, and how do you turn in a restraining order when it’s a whole group of people (hurting you). Mormon people take on religious names — I don’t even know the real name of the person I was married to.”

“Fear has a big way of controlling us as human beings,” Weisenbeck agreed. “(Trafficking) is an abuse cycle.”

Smith found safety in Minnesota for a few years, where a counselor suggested she utilize resources for trafficking victims, a notion that surprised her.

“I said, ‘I’m not trafficked,’ but she gave me a list of (signs) and I went down it it and responded, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ to everything.”

After being tracked down by her family, Smith fled to Colorado, but found her medical and mental health care was not covered and she reluctantly returned to Wisconsin, a place she calls “the danger zone.” Some of her family members are on an FBI watch list and others are still victims. She communicates with her parents through a “safe” relative but will not visit them in her hometown, an unincorporated area often overlooked by law enforcement.

Weisenbeck and Smith are cognizant of the major trafficking hubs around the Midwest, including the harbors of Lake Superior, where Native American women are taken aboard ships for sex trafficking, and the Interstate 90 corridor. The tendency for traffickers to travel and the mis-identification of the offense are substantial hurdles to prevention and prosecuting perpetrators.

“The legal professionals tell us the difficulty is proving all the facts. Only about 40 percent of cases are actually prosecuted, and many (offenders) receive suspended sentences,” Weisenbeck said. “The signs of trafficking and abuse overlap. You have to look very, very hard.”

Smith has shared her story and the red flags of trafficking, which may include living with multiple people in a small space, inability to speak to someone alone, submissive behavior or responses that seem rehearsed, to several organizations. After a nurse heard her speak at the Racine Coalition Against Human Trafficking, she was able to identify and assist a victim at her hospital.

“I say to people, ‘You’re the first in line to (saving) someone,’” Smith said.

Weisenbeck agrees, hoping the survey results will help further the TFEMS mission of community mobilization, advocacy and victim services, public awareness and media, training, data collection and safe harbor legislation.

“Trying to eradicate trafficking requires a group effort,” Weisenbeck stressed. “It’s important to get local people involved in doing something. Internalizing the problem keeps you conscious of it.”

“The legal professionals tell us the difficulty is proving all the facts. Only about 40 percent of cases are actually prosecuted, and many (offenders) receive suspended sentences. The signs of trafficking and abuse overlap. You have to look very, very hard.” Sister Marlene Weisenbeck
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General assignment reporter

Emily Pyrek covers human interest stories, local events and anything involving dogs for the La Crosse Tribune. She is always interested in story ideas and can be contacted at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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