By State Senator Julie Lassa
Human trafficking is defined as recruiting, harboring or transporting persons for commercial sex or labor by the use of coercion. It is one of the most brutal – and one of the most invisible – crimes spreading throughout Wisconsin. Its victims are mostly women, many of them minors. They are beaten, their families are threatened with violence, and they are told they will be turned over to the police if they refuse to cooperate. Many are far away from home and are forced to depend on their captors for food and shelter. And, worst of all, many of them believe they are to blame for their situation, and don’t cooperate with authorities even when they have the chance.
It’s difficult to know how many people are victimized by the crime of human trafficking in Wisconsin. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center verified 50 cases reported to its hotline in 2015, a 17 percent increase from the year before. Of those cases, 43 of the victims were females; 11 were minors. Local police and FBI sting operations have arrested perpetrators statewide and rescued dozens of captives. This crime is difficult to detect as most transactions take place on the Internet, well out of the public eye. And the victims themselves are so thoroughly coerced by their captors that they don’t dare report what is happening to them.
There are many ways human traffickers force their victims to submit. They may convince their victims that their relationship is a romantic one, and use the promise of love and security to recruit and manipulate them. They may threaten physical violence or death against the victim or the victim’s family. If the victim is a foreign national, the captor may confiscate their documentation and withhold it, threatening them with deportation. They may claim the victim owes them money they must pay back through labor or prostitution. The captor might get the victim addicted to illegal drugs and threaten to cut off their supply if they don’t cooperate. Many of these methods make the victim feel at fault for their situation, or that they will even get in trouble with the law themselves, which discourages them from trying to escape.
I have joined with my legislative colleagues on a bipartisan basis to strengthen the ability of law enforcement to fight human trafficking. I sponsored the 2008 bill that made it a felony to engage in human trafficking and increased the penalties if the victim is a child. More recently, I authored a bill that enhances protections for trafficking victims and expands surveillance powers for law enforcement in cases involving child sex crimes; I also sponsored an expansion of the child sex trafficking laws to include those who solicit sex from minors. And I authored the Internet Crimes Against Children Act that increased penalties for the use of the Internet to solicit sex from minors.
The crime of human trafficking may be largely invisible in our communities, but the suffering of its victims is very real. We must do more to make sure law enforcement has the tools it needs to root out human traffickers, and to make sure their victims have the support and protection they need to help bring their captors to justice. It’s time for this brutal form of modern-day slavery to end.
If you become aware of a human trafficking situation, there are several ways to report it. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center runs a toll-free hotline, 1-888-373-7888, where you can leave an anonymous tip 24 hours a day. You can also report the incident on the NHTRC website at traffickingresourcecenter.org/report-trafficking. To learn more about the crime of human trafficking in Wisconsin, visit the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families Anti-Trafficking page at dcf.wisconsin.gov/children/anti-trafficking.