Conversation flowed effortlessly around the circle at a women's support group meeting one Tuesday night at the Benedict Center. Then a young woman who usually kept to herself let out a barely audible whisper. All eyes turned to 21-year-old Laura Johnson as she gained momentum from her story. Her voice bellowed, eyes widened and hands moved as quickly as the words escaping her mouth.
Johnson said she had been an introverted teenager who enjoyed reading romance novels on her porch on North Avenue. Unlike the characters in the books that she read, she said the man she fell in love with had manipulated her. Johnson explained that she was taken to hotels all over the Midwest and sold for sex from the time she turned 14 until she was 17.
As her toddler son crawled around the middle of the circle, she shared that she had given birth to another son years before, but she had never met him. The man that had taken her away took her firstborn from her and sent him back to Milwaukee to be placed in the foster care system. After she escaped and found her way back home to Milwaukee, Johnson said there was nowhere for her to go and no support for what she had experienced.
“There was nothing here for me,” Johnson said. “At that point I almost felt like I should have just stayed with him.”
When she couldn’t get her son back or receive any services to help her cope with what she went through, Johnson said she lost trust in the system and went back to a life of prostitution and drugs to survive.
Across the room, Martha Love was on the edge of her seat. After recently hearing about a group of 8 middle-school-aged girls in Milwaukee that had been trafficked in the commercial sex trade during the school day and then went home at night to their parents, she knew she this problem was bigger than she ever imagined and realized she could no longer sit back and let it happen.
Love recruited her friend Dana World-Patterson, and the two decided to take action.
“It was so appalling that we started researching about resources for trafficked youth,” Love said.
There weren’t many available, so in 2008, they decided to start the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee. The task force originated as a function of Milwaukee County but now operates through the City of Milwaukee. They sought to educate their city about a problem plaguing the community’s children and to search for real solutions through facilitating collaboration.
The task force is comprised of non-profit organizations, service providers, medical care providers, faith communities, government agencies, law enforcement, survivors and families of survivors. According to World-Patterson, an average of 40-50 people attend the monthly meetings. The task force has four core committees focusing on public awareness, service provision, education and legislation.
When Johnson shared her story, she didn’t know that she had been trafficked. She didn’t know that word existed.
“There was no name for it, no identification for girls like me,” Johnson said.
That has been one of the primary goals of the task force, to make sure the community of Milwaukee knows, through education and awareness initiatives, that trafficking is a real problem affecting the city.
“It’s in epidemic proportions. Milwaukee has been considered a hub for human trafficking and a space for pimps to grow. It’s an underground world. It has been around for a long time,” World-Patterson said.
The task force has created marketing campaigns, presented at neighborhood associations, schools and churches, and trained law enforcement and care providers about what to look for in someone being exploited in the commercial sex trade.
“Human trafficking is now a word in our community,” Love said.
Both Love and World-Patterson agree that the language that has formed around trafficking has been an essential step to combatting it in Milwaukee.
“The definition of human trafficking has been paramount in helping us take on the problem,” World-Patterson said. The federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act defines trafficking as any situation “in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”
If they have learned one thing in the process of leading this community conversation, it is that there are many faces of trafficking. They say that needs to be taken into account when figuring out how to best address the problem.
“There is an image of what traffickers used to look like, and we’re not always seeing that,” Love said.
Love and other community advocates said they meet young people who have been trafficked by pimps like Laura, but they also often meet youth who have been trafficked by their own family members or people they considered their “boyfriend” or “sugar daddy.”
Local advocates say the Internet has contributed significantly to this exploitation, facilitating exchanges through sites like Craigslist or Backpage, and giving traffickers and johns another avenue to build coercive relationships with youth through social networks.
“Trafficking is a continuum of experiences and requires a continuum of care,” said Claudine O’Leary, an independent consultant, trafficking survivor, victim advocate and one of the original five members of the task force. She now works with youth who have had experiences in and are affected by the commercial sex trade.
O’Leary said societal structures and vulnerabilities like poverty, inequality, homelessness or involvement in the juvenile justice system can make youth more at risk of being trafficked.
She said that many of the youth she works with have experienced informal sexual exchanges, trading sexual services for shelter, money or food to help them survive. This is a concept she called “survival sex” and is included in the technical definition of trafficking even if a pimp is not always controlling the situation. According to O’Leary, it is “super common” in Milwaukee.
“It’s important to hold onto multiple stories at the same time,” O’Leary said, referring to how she wants different perspectives of youth and survivors to be at the center of the task force’s response to the perceived problem.
“In the task force, we talk about every single thing that contributes to human trafficking. Everything is put on the table,” Love said.
Love and World-Patterson sit proudly at the head of this table, letting their enthusiasm and encouragement overpower their frustration with an overwhelming situation. World-Patterson has been an etiquette teacher for her whole adult life, and her flawless makeup and elegant, matching hat provide a spark of beauty in a room full of conversation about ugly topics. Love nods reassuringly as the meeting goes on, seated at World-Patterson’s right hand.
Johnson is seated across the table, and World-Patterson said that being able to provide a “landing pad” for survivors like her has been a highlight of her work in the task force.
Over the span of the task force’s work, it has seen developments made by participating organizations in providing more comprehensive resources to survivors.
Earlier this fall, Chandra Cooper opened up Grateful Girls Safe Haven, the first group home in Milwaukee County specifically for girls transitioning out of sex trafficking.
“There is a housing need for this type of care, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Cooper said.
The Milwaukee Police Department as well as several local medical providers have increased their training in how to work with those who have experiences in the commercial sex trade. Johnson identified both housing and trauma-informed care as priorities for the task force still going forward, and said that survivors like herself need to be involved in developing any and all types of services and support.
“HUMAN SEX TRAFFICKING SURVIVORS. That needs to be written in big letters at the top of any community responses,” Johnson said.
Katie Linn, the executive director of Exploit No More, another organization working in the task force, said that there is still a gap between the services that need to be provided and the resources that are available.
“Even if we educate the community on how to identify victims and law enforcement becomes more trained and educated and even more resourced, we don’t have the housing resources and the therapeutic resources we need to help the victims,” Linn said. Exploit No More is continuing to raise capital for a housing a rehabilitation center they are planning to build.
The task force acknowledges that it will take legislative change as well in order to foster the kind of community response they would like to see. The policy branch of the task force focuses on all pieces of legislature coming through the state that could affect the issue of human trafficking, whether that be the prosecution of it or the service provision for survivors. Now it is pushing for the success of the Safe Harbor Act through the state legislature. Such a bill would completely decriminalize minors involved in the sex trade so they could receive better services, and the prosecution emphasis would be directed at only the traffickers and the buyers.
Linn and others are encouraged by the attention that the issue is getting in these areas. “I see it gaining a lot of traction, and on the public side too, we’re starting to see our leaders really pay attention to not only this issue in isolation, but this issue being tied to other issues,” she said.
World-Patterson wrestles with the enormity of the task force’s work by focusing on individual victories and small successes. She continues to be motivated by the stories of survival.
Johnson is now happily engaged with two young sons and is working on her degree in social work. She says she wants to become an agent of change in the systems she struggled with.
She is connected with other women who have had a range of experiences in the commercial sex trade and refers to them as her “survivor sisters.” Johnson will continue to ally with these women in ensuring that this problem is addressed, because she knows that there are still children out there who are currently being manipulated into situations like the one she experienced.
“An important part for me when I tell my story is that anyone can be trafficked, no matter who you are or where you’re from,” Johnson said.
Until that’s no longer true, World-Patterson said the community response won’t quit.
“One organization or two will not eradicate human trafficking. It will take all of us doing a good job around the table… It would be really great if we could just work our way out of a job one day,” World-Patterson said.