When he asks high schoolers why human trafficking exists, secretary of Slave Free Madison Ron Heinrich said their response is often “because the traffickers make a lot of money.”
But the high schoolers don’t ask why traffickers are making so much money, Heinrich said.
As human trafficking numbers rise in Wisconsin, Heinrich and SFM, along with local law enforcement are working to address the demand side of trafficking in Madison.
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Alex Hader, spokesperson for Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment, said promoting awareness to human trafficking is essential because it’s the first step to getting people to realize that there is an issue.
Many students do not think of trafficking as a problem in Madison, and many think it mostly occurs abroad, Hader said.
Madison Police Department Detective Roger Baker said that the Madison community is unaware of how close to home human trafficking is.
Because Madison is surrounded by other major cities it has become a “hub” for human trafficking in the Midwest, Baker said.
In Wisconsin, 91 cases of human trafficking were reported in 2017, up from 27 in 2012, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Baker said many people are unaware of the scope of the issue because it is so difficult to measure.
“It’s really tough for a victim to make a disclosure because it’s really hard to talk about something so personal with law enforcement,” Baker said. “There is so much fear and violence involved in that offender-victim relationship.”
Tracking these crimes is made even more difficult by the fact that most human trafficking is done online, Baker said.
For example, last April, after many warrants for websites, MPD was able to seize the site Backpage.com, which was essentially a Craigslist for escort services, Baker said. But new sites will only pop up in its place.
In an effort to address trafficking in Madison, MPD has received funding to create a full-time position for human trafficking that will begin once staffing needs are determined. Baker said law enforcement cannot address this issue on its own, adding that nonprofit organizations and social service agencies provide much-needed treatment for survivors and help promote awareness.
SFM is an organization that promotes awareness among both children and adults. Heinrich said SFM focuses on preventing human trafficking when speaking to children and encourages empathy for survivors when speaking to adults.
Heinrich said it is important to see those who have been trafficked as victims not prostitutes and to understand that these victims are being exploited and that do not have a choice.
“If we call it prostitution, there’s this idea of a victimless crime,” Heinrich said. “But the simple truth of the matter is that the vast majority of the people out there who are prostitutes — if we want to use that word — are being trafficked by somebody else and they’re not seeing any of the advantages, what they’re seeing is the violence.”
Baker also said it is important to recognize that survivors have been exploited because to charge someone who has been exploited with prostitution just “revictimizes” them.
While Wisconsin has partial safe harbor protection in place, allowing minors to gain victim status, they can still be criminalized, according to the Human Trafficking Search website.
The Safe Harbor Bill could prevent child trafficking victims from being charged as prostitutes, Heinrich said. The bill, that has already been passed in Minnesota, ensures that victims under 18 cannot be charged with prostitution.
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Heinrich said these kinds of bills are important because they shift focus from the victim to the demand. In the past, victims were always the ones charged but in recent years the MPD has begun to look into the demand side.
SFM is addressing demand by speaking to young men to promote empathy and encourage engagement with the issue. Heinrich said that usually about 90 percent of the attendees at Slave Free’s events are women because human trafficking is often seen as a women’s issue.
“This whole thing is being driven by demand and that is an entirely male construct,” Heinrich said. “I like to talk to groups of men … trying to change the perceptions of what masculinity means.”
Providing rehabilitation resources for survivors is important because without proper resources and safe shelter many will return to being trafficked, Heinrich said.
Araceli Alonso, co-director of Social Transformations to End Exploitation and Trafficking for Sex, said STREETS often uses art to assist with survivor rehabilitation. Alonso said because talking about their experience can be dangerous for survivors, art offers an alternative way to express their emotions.
While sharing their experience is not always safe for survivors, Alonso said their voice is one that needs to be prioritized when researching and discussing human trafficking.
“We forget that there are people behind all of these articles and all of these books … sometimes we hear that the system has damaged the survivor more than the trafficking,” Alonso said. “We have to make this system better prepared to serve those who really need it.”
While the staffing for MPD’s human trafficking division has yet to be decided, both Alonso and Heinrich agreed that the best thing University of Wisconsin students can do is get educated on the issue.
Organizations on campus like PAVE are working to increase discussions about human trafficking. Hader said PAVE wants to hear from students who are interested in human trafficking, adding that they may devote one of their bi-weekly discussions, called Change is Brewing, to human trafficking.
Heinrich said students can help by getting involved with one of the many organizations in Madison that are working to end human trafficking, or even by simply looking out for warning signs of trafficking and contacting the police.
“Once you are aware that human trafficking is occurring then it’s a matter of standing up and being courageous enough … to say this doesn’t seem right,” Heinrich said.