Sex slave trade alive in Wisconsin

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MADISON — One morning, Laura woke up a little sluggish — not fast enough for her boyfriend, Michael. So he stabbed her in the calf.

Eleven years later, Laura, now 30, still bears a deep, nickel-sized crater there.

The two met in Madison, and he took her to Albuquerque, N.M., where he used violence and psychological intimidation to coerce her to sell her body for money. Both names have been changed for Laura’s protection.

Laura says she worked for three months as a prostitute for Michael. “Basically Michael claimed he owned me,” Laura says.

The young woman finally escaped during a trip to Texas, nearly losing her life in the process as Michael, high on crack, crashed their car. She took the chance and ran away.

Laura is a survivor of human trafficking. She recounted her story at Project Respect, a Madison nonprofit that helps sex workers. The details of stories like hers are difficult to corroborate, director of Project Respect Jan Miyasaki says. But Miyasaki, who’s been working with Laura for about seven years, says Laura’s story is credible and follows a typical pattern.

Human trafficking is a little-recognized crime that involves controlling or attempting to control a person by force, fraud, debt bondage or coercion for sexual exploitation or forced labor. Instead of physical bonds, perpetrators often use psychological tactics to control victims, says Miyasaki

Victims can be lured by offers of a job, a meal or a place to stay, access to drugs or a relationship — then are manipulated by traffickers until they feel trapped. Common trafficking victims include immigrants, the drug addicted, poor and abused. Young people with nowhere to live and no means of support also are vulnerable to exploitation.

Milwaukee Police Detective Dawn Jones, one of two officers on the federally funded Milwaukee human trafficking task force, says trafficking is “a huge problem in Wisconsin,” and includes  juveniles who are pimped out and foreign nationals trapped in forced work situations.

Miyasaki is among the experts and advocates who say that since enacting a state law against human trafficking in 2008, Wisconsin has done little to expose situations in which which hundreds of state residents, including children, live as virtual slaves.

Wisconsin lacks money for data collection, education, law enforcement training and victim services that could bring more cases to light, advocates say. The state’s major federal grant for trafficking victim services recently ended. And there has been just one conviction under the new state law.

Federal law also bans trafficking. Since 2006, eight people have been convicted in four federal cases for labor, sex or child sex trafficking in Wisconsin. A few cases are pending in state and federal courts.

The only funding specifically aimed at recognizing and combating human trafficking in Wisconsin comes from federal sources. The $200,000 two-year federal anti-trafficking grant to the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Rescue and Restore Coalition funded victim services, but it ended in April. The U.S. Department of Justice supports the Milwaukee Federal Human Trafficking Taskforce, which investigate trafficking cases, with a $170,000 grant.

Human trafficking is commonly cited as a fast growing crime, but there are few solid numbers. The U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons report says there are around 12.3 million trafficking victims worldwide, but other estimates range from 4 million to 27 million victims. In Wisconsin, a 2007 survey put the number of victims at about 200 — but nearly everyone agrees that number is low.

In a recent trafficking incident, Lt. Todd Stetzer of the Fitchburg Police Department says a 15-year-old runaway was taken to Milwaukee and Atlanta and forced into prostitution. The girl was recovered on July 17, along with her 10-month-old son, in DeKalb County, Georgia, by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

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