Milwaukee’s place as a hub for human trafficking has attracted media attention both locally and internationally. The Federal Bureau of Investigation confirms that the city has a significant problem, especially when it comes to adolescents being trafficked.
But a number of organizations are undertaking efforts to alleviate the problem. Among them is Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, which is working to better educate medical providers in identifying and helping children who may be the victim of exploitation.
"Most youth, at some point, need to obtain health care. So we may be the first ones that these kids come into contact with that can learn to recognize what's going on and be suspicious," says Dr. Wendi Ehrman, a professor of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.
Dr. Ehrman and her colleague Dr. Angela Rabbitt, an associate professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, have been part of some of these efforts to teach medical professionals how to better identify victims. The duo have spearheaded a couple of these initiatives, including the Proactive Outreach for the Health of Sexually Exploited Youth (POHSEY), launched by Dr. Ehrman in 2014.
In recent years, Milwaukee has garnered a reputation for being one of the worst cities for human trafficking in the country. Both Rabbitt and Ehrman say it's difficult to truly assess how much trafficking is happening in any given city, but the city does have some things that make it more prone to the crime.
"One of the issues is our location," says Rabbitt. "We're kind of right in the middle of Green Bay and Chicago, down south... Chicago's a larger city, Green Bay has sporting events, and those tend to be areas where we see a lot of trafficking."
Ehrman adds, "I also think that some of the things that Milwaukee struggles with, like poverty and discrimination, and a lot of psychosocial issues among some of the families, contributes a lot to the issues we see here."
In a peer-reviewed article by Dr. Rabbitt, she found that there's currently a lack of medical guidelines for caring for the victims of human trafficking. She says that in the past, medical professionals in Wisconsin have faced some difficulty in identifying trafficked people, but she hopes that increased awareness of the issue will change that.
Medical providers are in a unique position to not only find help for victims, but also to educate them about their situation. "Sometimes youth, they don't even understand what's happening to them. They don't realize that it's exploitation. So even asking the question and screening can be a way of educating them," Ehrman explains.