La Crosse Task Force Continues Fight Against Human Trafficking

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."

To read the full story by Emily Pyrek of La Crosse Tribune: Click Here 


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