You may have seen new billboards in Milwaukee this week asking people to call an 800 number if they know of a child involved in the sex trade.
The signs are part of the FBI’s national effort to crack down on child sex trafficking. It’s a growing problem in Wisconsin, and people here on many levels are digging in, to fight back.
In one case a few years ago, a 15-year-old Milwaukee girl went missing. Men had lured her into a car, by promising alcohol and drugs. Then they drove her to a different state.
“And when she woke up, she was in a place where she knew nobody, she didn’t know the person she was with and they immediately locked her in a room and put her to work.”
That’s the girl’s mother. She doesn’t want us to use her name. She says her daughter was forced to prostitute herself, and was beaten and tortured.
“Tortured with things like knives, and assaulted. So it was very, very bad. She’s in counseling now for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it’s a long, long process.”
The girl’s ordeal is a typical one, according to Chad Elgersma. He’s a special agent with the FBI. Elgersma says perpetrators prey on kids’ vulnerabilities. He says victims are often homeless, or in a difficult family situation. So the offer of money or drugs – or even safety and companionship can sound alluring.
“And a lot of these are all false promises that are used just to kind of groom the victim and build up a rapport and get the victim to do what the perpetrator wants them to do,” Elgersma says.
Elgersma supervises a newly created squad at the Milwaukee FBI office. It exclusively investigates violent crimes against children, including prostitution.
“The problem that we’re seeing is primarily concentrated in southeast Wisconsin, into the Milwaukee area, the surrounding counties, but we’re also seeing that it is spreading throughout the state,” Elgersma says.
Advocates for foster children in Milwaukee say pimps often hang out near group homes and lure mainly girls into the sex trade.
Heather Miller is an assistant district attorney. She says police often come upon the kids – not for prostitution, but for other offenses. Then hopefully the truth emerges, that they are not criminals.
“They are victims of sexual assault. They’re victims of sexual exploitation, victims of people who seek prostitution. And so our objective and our goal is to advocate for what these children need,” Miller says.
Miller says ideally, the courts order services for the young person, such as counseling or a safe place to live.
“Our community in the last couple years has really started to acknowledge that this is a problem and the services have been lacking in the past, but we’ve seen a definite change in service providers being willing to receive additional training,” Miller says.
Efforts to fight child sex trafficking are expanding not only locally and nationally, but also at the state level.
“For many years we haven’t had the resources to address the problem.”
That’s Jenniffer Price. She’s commander of the state Department of Justice’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Price says the Legislature added money in the new state budget to boost investigations of child exploitation. The funding is buying new technology to analyze digital devices predators use to conduct their business.
“We know that a large number of these cases are going to have not your typical computer desktop or your laptop, rather they’re going to have mobile devices and we need specialized equipment to be able to forensically analyze those items,” Price says.
Price says the additional money will also allow the department to place agents in regional offices.
As for the Milwaukee teen who eventually escaped from her captors, her mother started a support group called Healing Hearts. It’s for the parents and caregivers of children who’ve been sexually exploited. The adults meet once a month to share their experiences and advice.