Sex Trafficking: How Courts Can Combat the Problem:


Wisconsin map

Human sex trafficking is a serious problem that is highly prevalent in Wisconsin, but it often goes undetected and is misunderstood by justice system professionals. Wisconsin has a reputation for being in the top five states for human sex trafficking.1 While Milwaukee is considered a trafficking hub,2 the problem of sex trafficking exists even in small communities, though the exact numbers are hard to determine.

According to a report released by the Wisconsin Department of Justice in January 2020, human trafficking data in Wisconsin is “inconsistent across the state and more incomplete than previously believed.”3 The report indicated that confusion about legal definitions of trafficking and inconsistencies in data entry practices have led law enforcement agencies to undercount the number of cases in the state.4

The court system’s perception of sex trafficking mirrors that inconsistency and incompleteness. That is, although issues related to Wisconsin sex trafficking are playing out in state courts, individuals in the system often are unaware that the problem exists or struggle with how to recognize it. Nevertheless, it is imperative for judicial system participants, including judges, court commissioners, lawyers, bailiffs, clerks, court reporters, and interpreters, to realize that this problem does not happen only in other, more populous states. Sex trafficking happens in Wisconsin, and the court system can help. This article focuses on the role courts can play in combating sex trafficking in Wisconsin.

Cities and Small Towns

Human beings can be trafficked for many purposes, including forced labor, illegal organ donations, and debt bondage. The international aspects of human trafficking are clear. The United Nations defines human trafficking as:

“[T]he recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”5

A particularly onerous form of human trafficking is trafficking for the purpose of sexual servitude. This type of trafficking victimizes predominantly women and children, but men also are victims.

Trafficking of humans for sex is not just a problem in other countries. In 2017, more than 7,000 sex trafficking cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.6 This number, however, is only indicative of the cases that were reported to that particular resource. Experts estimate that many more cases go unreported. The best estimates suggest that, each year, tens of thousands of people, both U.S. citizens and noncitizens, located throughout the United States are trafficked for various commercial sex purposes, such as pimp-controlled prostitution, escort services, residential and underground brothels, pornography production and cyber-pornography, and cantina karaoke as well as other types of bars and clubs.7 Some of those cases were in Wisconsin.

There have been several attempts to determine the prevalence and composition of sex trafficking in Wisconsin. For example, a report issued by the city of Milwaukee in March 2018 revealed that between Jan. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2016, 340 people age 25 years old or younger had been victims of sex trafficking in the city of Milwaukee alone.8 From this demographic, researchers analyzed data for 231 individuals. In that group, 97 percent were female, 65 percent were African American, and 55 percent were juveniles.9 There was another interesting characteristic of this demographic: 86 percent had a previous report of interaction or contact with the Milwaukee Police Department.10 These previous incidents were for such reasons as sexual assaults, battery or domestic violence, child abuse, drug crimes, and missing person reports.11

All 72 Wisconsin counties have reported human sex trafficking.

Another study was published in December 2018 by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) based on data gathered by child welfare agencies throughout the state. This study relied on data taken from eWiSACWIS, Wisconsin’s Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System. The data was entered in response to a law change, effective Jan. 29, 2017, mandating that suspected cases of child sex trafficking be reported to local child welfare or law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin.12

The study found that in the 15-month period June 1, 2017-Aug. 31, 2018, there were 422 allegations of child sex trafficking across Wisconsin, involving 354 individual victims.13 Of the total allegations made, 42.2 percent occurred in Milwaukee County.14 Of this pool of victims, 46.7 percent were white, 42.9 percent were African American, 4.7 percent were Native American, and 3.1 percent were Asian; the racial background of the remainder was not determined.15 Of all allegations made, 99 were substantiated, involving 86 individuals.16

Although statistics for this type of crime are difficult to obtain, the trafficking of children and adults for sexual exploitation is occurring not only in urban areas but in rural communities as well.17 All 72 Wisconsin counties have reported human sex trafficking.18 The pattern of this trafficking has also started to become clear. The Interstate 41 corridor (Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton, and Green Bay) is a thoroughfare for people working the sex trade.19 Highway 29 from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Green Bay is another such corridor, as is a path along Interstate 94 from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Milwaukee.20 Although the beginning and end points are larger cities, there are many off ramps along the way that lead directly to smaller communities. Thus, the buying and selling of women, men, and children for the purpose of sexual exploitation is a problem the Wisconsin judicial system faces throughout the state.

A Small Town Story*

On Nov. 29, 2019, law enforcement officers in Green Lake County, Wis., picked up a 17-year-old girl walking on the side of a road. According to the criminal complaint, she told them that earlier in the day she had been sexually assaulted by several men at a residence. In addition, she reported that in the days leading up to the assault, one of the men “threatened to tell police she was a prostitute if she did not have sex with them.”

The victim indicated that because of the threats, she was worried that she would be arrested. She also described “other residents threatening, intimidating, and forcing her to have sex with them.”

When police officers interviewed the men, only one indicated that he knew she was under age 18. Rather, they indicated that they thought she was 22-28 years old with four children. They told law enforcement that the woman was “crazy” and “acting erratic” and would “threaten people with knives or tip over chairs.” Some of the men said they had paid her for sex.

*Sarah Razner, Case Continues Against 6 Men Accused of Sex Trafficking Teen Girl in Green Lake County, Fond du Lac Reporter, Feb. 28, 2020.

An Insidious Process

Sex trafficking occurs in various forms and with various players. As a result, court officials might encounter sex trafficking cases in a number of ways. A criminal court will be involved if the trafficker is charged, the purchaser is charged, or the trafficked victim is charged with something such as prostitution or possession of drugs.

Sex trafficking can also present an issue in children in need of protection or services (CHIPS), delinquency, and family law cases. More so than in a criminal case, observing sex trafficking in the context of these case types makes clear how slowly and subtly the family unit disintegrates because of the dynamics of sex trafficking. In any given type of case, the issue for the justice system is this: Do we know what we are looking at, and how do we deal with what we see?

One very common feature of sex trafficking is coercion of victims.21 This coercion usually stems from actual or threatened violence to the victim.22 When violence has actually occurred, threats to engage in more violence are likely to have a greater effect on the trafficked person.23 Other times, the threat is understood without violence having occurred.24 Sometimes, other forms of coercion are used, such as financial coercion, threats of deportation, threats of embarrassment by exposure as a “prostitute,” emotional abuse, or isolation if an intimate partner refuses to perform the sex acts on a customer.25 Whether it is violence or some other “tool,” coercion of vulnerable individuals is part of the dynamics of sex trafficking.

In any given type of case, the issue for the justice system is this: Do we know what we are looking at, and how do we deal with what we see?

Because of coercion, it can be particularly difficult for justice system workers to effectively recognize and interact with trafficked individuals. This difficulty presents itself in several ways. First, trafficked individuals might be very attuned to their predicament but see absolutely no way out of their situation and potentially risk serious harm if they reach out for help.26 Reaching out for help, and failing, can bring trafficked individuals into conflict with people trying to keep them in the trafficking life.27 This fear might cause a person to be unwilling to seek help.

Alternatively, individuals who are being trafficked might not be well attuned to their predicament or might not believe anything is wrong in their lives.28 Between the fear of getting caught trying to escape and the confidence that no problem exists, there are a myriad of other mindsets that can create barriers to escape.29 In any event, empowering someone in this situation can be problematic because they might think they don’t need help. Children and young adults often fit this description because of the way they were pulled into the trafficking life.

Because the process of pulling victims into sex trafficking is insidious, the process of removing victims is difficult at best. Often, “pimps” recruit victims from the most vulnerable segment of society and, thus, the victims have difficulty seeing their own self-worth outside the trafficking life.30 Many victims have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused in childhood or have been exposed to some other form of trauma.31

Victims may be from families that were subject to CHIPS orders or from intact families. For young people, popular culture often reinforces the acceptability of moving into this lifestyle by portraying the exploitation of women in a glamorous fashion. Movies such as Hustlers, which dramatizes the life of strippers, or Pretty Woman, with its portrayal of sex workers, are examples of the romanticization of the sex industry. These factors may facilitate the entry of young women into the trafficking life by suggesting that it is exciting and fun. The ways “in” are so varied from person to person that a prevention strategy is almost defied.

One method of coercing individuals into this system is by simply offering them friendship and attention when, in other respects, they are not getting those things in their personal lives.32 Sometimes pimps do this “friendship” recruiting directly, and other times pimps have a “coworker” assist with the coercing.

For example, an unsuspecting young woman befriends a woman who is already being trafficked. The woman who is being trafficked is actually assisting her trafficker in recruiting other young women into the trafficking life. Together, the pimp and the trafficked women pull in new “recruits” by providing them with attention. When these individual people come before the court, delivery of justice is complex at best. Should the female trafficker be treated as a victim because she was being trafficked or should she be treated as a criminal because she helped recruit others? Preying on vulnerable young people by slowly working on them until trust is developed is an effective means of creating new victims. Developing an effective strategy to stop it is not so easy.

Attacking the Problem in the Justice System

Wisconsin has separate statutes for charging sex trafficking of minors and adults. Wisconsin law provides that “[w]hoever knowingly recruits, entices, provides, obtains, harbors, transports, patronizes, or solicits or knowingly attempts to recruit, entice, provide, obtain, harbor, transport, patronize, or solicit any child for the purpose of commercial sex acts, as defined in s. 940.302(1)(a), is guilty of a Class C felony.”33 Similarly, the Wisconsin adult sex trafficking statute indicates that whoever knowingly engages in trafficking is guilty of a Class D felony if the “trafficking is for the purposes of a commercial sex act.”34

Reading the statute is easy, but identifying victims is a significant challenge for the justice system. There are many points in the justice system process when trafficked individuals potentially could be identified and helped by justice system professionals if those professionals have knowledge of the problem. This is why comprehensive training combined with vigilance is called for throughout the court system.

One method of detecting and addressing the problem of sex trafficking is the treatment court (or specialty court) model. In the Brown County Heroin Treatment Court, over which this author presides, sex trafficked individuals are seen at various stages. One young man was being trafficked for sex in exchange for heroin. This individual wanted to get out of the trafficking life, but his lack of resources and money, combined with his addiction, prevented his escape. The treatment court offered a way out of that life. Once his addiction was treated, he no longer needed to continue in the sex trade. Money was still an issue, but services offered by the treatment court alleviated some of the financial distress. Employment, which a person can much more easily obtain and maintain when not actively using drugs, helped alleviate the rest.

Because the process of pulling victims into sex trafficking is insidious, the process of removing victims is difficult at best.

A young woman who was being trafficked had a different issue. She was getting heroin in exchange for sex as well, but she believed her pimp loved her. Though she was motivated to treat her addiction, she still wanted to have contact with the pimp, who continued to ask her to help with the drug and prostitution trade. The link between the victim and the trafficking life was more difficult to break.

Although it can often be difficult to identify victims of sex trafficking when they encounter the justice system, treatment courts provide a unique opportunity to make identification a little more possible. Situations such as those described above are not hard to recognize because they are unveiled by the process and services offered in the treatment court. The regular contact, attention, and types of treatment offered by treatment courts all lead to an increased likelihood of identifying trafficking victims.

However, even though detection of trafficking victims is a positive outcome, Wisconsin’s substance abuse courts are not specifically designed to identify and address the issue of sex trafficking. Rather, substance abuse courts are designed to identify and address illicit drug use and dependence. A different type of specialty court, however, has arisen to address this issue.35 Human sex trafficking specialty courts have been implemented in various states with the goal of intensifying efforts to identify victims of trafficking and creating a more effective method to connect them to services. These specialty courts are modeled on the treatment court structure but are specifically tailored to the needs of sex trafficking victims. The basic components of these courts are as follows:36

  • Identifying Victims. A protocol is put in place to assist justice system workers to identify victims who are eligible for the specialty court.

  • Trauma-informed Approaches. All team members use a trauma-informed approach to ensure proper treatment of the victims.

  • Linking to Services. This piece is crucial because it helps deliver the needed services to the victim in an individualized manner.

  • Multidisciplinary Collaboration. Given the complex nature of these cases and the human sex trafficking problem generally, a multidisciplinary approach is needed to reach a solution.

  • Redefining Success. Success can be defined in different ways. In the context of a sex trafficking treatment court, success is incremental and slow. The victims did not end up in their situations overnight. Thus, it is not realistic to expect victims to change their lives overnight. Success should be measured on an individual basis.

Although these components are similar to those incorporated in substance abuse treatment, additional factors must be considered when deciding whether to implement a sex trafficking treatment court. First, setting up a new treatment court is neither easy nor inexpensive. Further, some counties may not find it cost effective given the number of trafficked individuals they have identified in their courts. However, even if it is not possible to create a sex trafficking treatment court, courts still can provide a coordinated response that adopts many of the components mentioned above.

Another tool counties can use to address sex trafficking is a coordinated community response team. Coordinated response teams can be set up in any county and for little or no cost. In the realm of criminal justice, criminal justice coordinating councils have been created throughout Wisconsin “[t]o make the criminal justice system a better investment toward improving the quality of life in Wisconsin.”37 Currently, 34 Wisconsin counties have local criminal justice coordinating councils.38 Three Wisconsin tribes also have such councils.39 These local councils are ideal places to start a conversation about the issue of sex trafficking.

Educating local leaders, developing training and best practices, and identifying gaps in the system are good first steps in addressing the issue. Moreover, counties that do not have such coordinating councils would find that creating one would do more than simply address sex trafficking. These councils have the added benefit of assisting with the delivery of justice in all aspects of the criminal justice system.

As part of the coordinated response, focus needs to be placed not only on training the justice system on how to identify victims of trafficking but also on developing appropriate ways to treat people who are being rescued from the sex trafficking trade.

Some counties have created more specialized coordinating councils to address specific issues in their local criminal justice system. For example, in many counties, domestic violence coordinated community response teams bring together the principal players in the domestic violence field to develop particularized responses to that issue. Such specialized councils could be developed at no cost to start addressing the issue of sex trafficking. Cost should not be a deterrent to beginning a coordinated discussion of this problem.

As part of the coordinated response, focus needs to be placed not only on training justice system workers to identify victims of trafficking but also on developing appropriate ways to treat people who are being rescued from the sex trafficking trade. Minors often find themselves leaving the life of sex trafficking and ending up in the foster care system, which can make them feel as powerless as being trafficked. Running away and getting back into “the life” seems like empowerment in those circumstances. Adults who leave trafficking need specialized treatment to help them deal with the trauma they have been through and to help them become reempowered in a healthy way. None of these efforts are easy, but the first step is to open the discussion – a discussion that is coordinated and multidisciplinary.

Finally, it is important that all players in the justice system be familiar with Wis. Stat. section 973.015(2m), which allows victims of sex trafficking to petition the court to vacate a conviction, adjudication, or finding or to expunge a prostitution conviction from a record. This permits victims to seek relief from the court if they were pulled into criminal activity as a result of sex trafficking. Although this small measure of relief does not provide treatment or services, it can facilitate a new beginning – which sometimes is all that is needed.


There is no doubt that sex trafficking exists in Wisconsin. Do we know what we are looking at, and how do we deal with what we see? These are important questions we should ask ourselves when considering this issue. There is no “magic bullet” that will pierce this problem and eliminate it. The solution requires training and vigilance for all participants in the justice system, regardless of their professional role or specialty. All that needs to be done is to get started.

Meet Our Contributors

What is one of the biggest challenges you face as a circuit court judge?

Thomas J. WalshOne of the biggest challenges I face as a judge is seeing problems that have solutions, but having a limited ability to make “the fix.” As might be expected, judges see many of the problems that exist in society, for example, domestic violence, disinterested parenting, elder abuse, and drug and alcohol abuse.

There are paths forward on many of these issues. However, judicial officials are not in a position to make policy or expend funds. That is not the role of a judicial official. Often, those who make policy and expend funds don’t see these issues firsthand and, increasingly, the judiciary is not held in high regard. Thus, judicial leadership is often discounted.

It is a challenge to see problems first hand, recognize some solutions, and be unable to affect change.

Thomas J. Walsh, Brown County Circuit Court, Green Bay

Become a contributor! Are you working on an interesting case? Have a practice tip to share? There are several ways to contribute to Wisconsin Lawyer. To discuss a topic idea, contact Managing Editor Karlé Lester at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6127, or email org klester wisbar wisbar klester org. Check out our writing and submission guidelines.


1 Olivia Richardson, Sex Trafficking Cases Rise in Wisconsin, Which Kaul Says Could be Due to More Victims Coming Forward,, Jan. 10, 2020.

2 Rachel Monaco-Wilcox & Daria Mueller, Under the Radar, Human Trafficking in Wisconsin, 90 Wis. Law. (Oct. 2017).

3 Mary Spicuzza, Hundreds of Sex-Traffcking Cases Have Been Reported in Wisconsin, But the Real Number May be Higher According to a New Report, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 9, 2020.


5 United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

6 Wis. DCF, We Need to Talk About Sex Trafficking,

7 Human Trafficking & the State Courts Collaborative, A Guide to Human Trafficking for State Courts, at 10.

8 Milwaukee Homicide Review Comm’n et al., Estimating the Magnitude of Sex Trafficking Risk and Victimization of Juveniles and Young Adults, City of Milwaukee, Jan. 1, 2013 – Dec. 31, 2016, at 10 (March 1, 2018).

9Id. at 2.



12 Wis. DCF, Division of Safety & Permanence, Reports of Child Sex Trafficking Allegations and Substantiations to Child Protective Services 3 (Dec. 2018).




16 Wis. DCF, supra note 12, at 3.

17 Diana Dombrowski, Human Trafficking Is All Over Wisconsin, But Subtle. You Might Have Seen Victims and Never Known, Sheboygan Press (June 9, 2019).

18 Latoya Dennis, Sex Trafficking In Every Wisconsin County (Jan. 23, 2018).

19Open Circle Fellowship to Host Sex Trafficking Awareness Talk June 17, Fond du Lac Reporter, (June 9, 2018).

20 Shelby Mitchell, Hidden in Plain Site, Door Cty. Pulse (Aug. 24, 2018).

21 Ctr. for Court Innovation, The Intersection of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Human Trafficking, at 1 (noting that coercion of trafficking victims can stem from the threat of violence, the threat of emotional harm, or other methods).


23Id. (noting that pimp/traffickers “may have threatened to or may have already used physical abuse, often as a mechanism to control and coerce the victim and to enforce silence when the victim comes into contact with the justice system.”).



26Id. (noting that “[i]ndividuals engaged in prostitution may be in an intimate relationship and have children with their pimp/trafficker, who may have threatened to or may have already used physical abuse, often as a mechanism to control and coerce the victim and to enforce silence when the victim comes into contact with the justice system.”).


28 State Justice Inst., Human Trafficking Cases in Your Court, Webcast, June 25, 2019, slide 58 (noting that victims may stay with a trafficker because they are “unaware what is being done to them is a crime” and they may “develop loyalties, positive feelings toward trafficker as coping mechanism.”); see also Monaco-Wilcox & Mueller, supra note 2 (“youth who have been trafficked can be very reluctant to characterize their experiences as the result of weakness or being taken advantage of”).

29Id. (such mindsets include fear; distrust of health providers, government, and police; fear of safety for their family; past trauma; addiction; trauma bonding or simply being unaware where they are geographically because of being frequently moved by trafficker).

30 Monaco-Wilcox & Mueller, supra note 2.

31 State Justice Inst., supra note 28, slide 55.

32 Monaco-Wilcox & Mueller, supra note 2.

33 Wis. Stat. 948.051(1).

34 Wis. Stat. 940.302(2).

35See generally Ctr. for Court Innovation, supra note 21 (noting various human trafficking court models in New York, California, and Ohio).

36 Ctr. for Court Innovation, supra note 21.


38 The counties are Ashland, Brown, Burnett, Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Douglas, Dunn, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Forest, Grant, Green, Green Lake, Iowa, Jackson, Jefferson, Kenosha, La Crosse, Marathon, Marinette, Milwaukee, Pierce, Portage, Racine, Rock, Sauk, St. Croix, Trempealeau, Vilas, Walworth, Waukesha, Waupaca, and Winnebago.

39Id. The tribes are the Forest County Potawatomi, the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin.


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