Human Trafficking in Milwaukee Part II

Continued from a story in our November issue

“I was driving down the street and I saw a woman walking with no shoes. I approached her, using the shoes as a hook to engage conversation: ‘Do you need anything? We have shoes, we have food, we have condoms…’ We got her name, and this was the third time that we had seen her in different places in the vicinity,” says Dana World-Patterson, founder of Foundations for Freedom and chairperson of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee.

If she didn’t help that woman right away, it is due to the disheartening fact that “the life” is very hard to leave. “A person may leave the life of human trafficking and then return five to 16 times. They have been trained not to trust. It’s like an electric fence: A dog comes too close to the edge and gets shocked, and after a while they learn not to go that far. Knowing that, a person may see the door, they may even be constantly thinking about how to exit, but it’s not that easy to walk out,” World-Patterson explains. “A trauma-informed way of helping them is to say, ‘if you don’t take our hand this time, we’re coming back.’ We just believe that the more we encounter the women that are working the streets, the more likely they are, eventually, to grab our hand back,” she continues. “We have people on our team that have been in their shoes and who can lead and guide along the way.”

Even when they reach out for help, these people have to transition away from being “a victim” through what Dana World-Patterson describes as “the survival space,” which is very insidious and dangerous. Victims might be tempted to return to their previous life for the comfort of a known evil, because they lack resources when they escape it.

“The hardest part about cooperation from the victims is that the trafficker takes care of everything for them in their life. The trafficker provides everything for the victim: food, shelter, support, a sense of family, a sense of community, money, so for the victim to leave that life and leave essentially all of the support she has is a very difficult process,” Karshen explains. “Often, traffickers are also controlling their victims’ addictive substances. If the victim is addicted to crack or heroin, they will say, ‘You can’t have the heroin or the crack until you do $1,000.’ And so, by controlling the heroin or whatever their drug of addiction is, the withdrawal symptoms are so bad, especially from heroin, that they will do whatever the trafficker wants.”

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Another challenge that stands in the way of breaking up human trafficking is the fact that sex trafficking victims can get in trouble for coming forward. “Prostitution is still illegal, so victims can be very untrusting of the police, and it can be very difficult to have a complete interview and for victims to disclose all of the details,” Karshen adds.

LOTUS Legal Clinic provides assistance for survivors of human trafficking. “We do legal advocacy and representation inside of criminal processes, and we make sure that a victim is not treated like a perpetrator,” says Knowlton. “There are many women who are being coerced to get other women involved. So, when you talk about prostitution charges, many times you will find a trafficker who is making victims get other women involved as well. It’s a very common ploy for traffickers to make sure that their victim has some sort of violation, because it’s another way to keep them under control. We have an expungement program to make sure that survivors can have their record expunged so they can have a clean start.”

How to Address It

There are structures in place to fight human trafficking, including the Milwaukee Joint Human Trafficking Task Force, the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Bureau and—a collaboration between the FBI and Milwaukee Police Department—the Federal Human Trafficking Task Force. Non-profit organizations offer resources, as well. Groups like Foundations for Freedom, LOTUS Legal Clinic, but also Pathfinders, which offer shelter and advocacy, and more local organizations provide punctual help. “There is no doubt, in Milwaukee, that there’s a dire need specifically for housing and for housing assistance,” says Knowlton. World-Patterson adds: “Yes, there is absolutely a need for more housing in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.”

“The victims need housing, they need treatment, they need job skills, and we don’t have all of that support for them. It just takes a lot of money,” Karshen says. While she does believe that local, community-based organizations have been doing an “outstanding job,” she agrees that “there is a lot more that could be done. “This isn’t just a job that one entity can do. It can’t just be law enforcement, the DA’s office, it has to be this wrap-around service for the victims. We need to approach this in a victim-centered way.”

One commonality between law enforcement, the human trafficking task force and organizations providing services to victims is the agreement that prevention is the best way to limit human trafficking in Milwaukee. Trafficking starts when a person becomes vulnerable. “Victims aren’t running to a trafficker. They’re running from something else, whether it is a drug addiction, whether it is an abusive household or something else,” Karshen says.

Knowlton adds, “Human trafficking is simply the exploitation of any vulnerability of a person, and then using that vulnerability to exploit that person. As such, the population that is most vulnerable to human trafficking is literally everyone.” And yet, “Youth who are easier and cheaper for perpetrators to get because they are looking to have their basic needs met: basic food, clothing and shelter.”

She continues: “Pay attention specifically, in six, seventh, eighth and ninth grade, where kids are very vulnerable to peer pressure and to feeling accepted in this crazy hormonal adolescence. Those are tumultuous times, and perpetrators are masters at figuring that out. And the problem is once they’ve done one thing and it works, then you’re sunk.” Among examples of hooks that perpetrators can use, she mentions getting pornographic pictures online then demanding certain actions under the threat of publishing the pictures. The objective is to make the victims afraid of calling for help while they can still get it.

“In terms of prevention, we must spot a vulnerability and work on correcting that vulnerability. You’re not going to catch all the traffickers, but you can make someone less vulnerable so that they can advocate for themselves and they know they have safe spaces,” Knowlton concludes.

“Traffickers are not looking for the strong, they’re looking for the weak, they’re looking for the vulnerable. That is how you prevent it. If we can build confident, strong girls, we believe that we’re extracting from that number. We believe that’s one less victim, because they’re strong. The first thing that stops human trafficking is dignity and safety,” World-Patterson asserts.

Karshen says, “It’s really hard to break that cycle, and a way to help is to just be a positive, non-judgmental, open person, so when the victim is ready to disclose, they have that person to disclose to. That can mean the world.”

Jean-Gabriel Fernandez is a French journalist and graduate from La Sorbonne University. He writes about politics, cannabis and Milwaukee’s rich culture.

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