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‘A hard crime to identify’: Experts say human trafficking is here but difficult to prosecute

After Dawn T. Heath first attended a workshop on human trafficking, she didn’t sleep that night.

“And it just… It pierced my heart,” she said. “I had to get involved in this somehow.”

She said police needed help, and she decided the best way to do that was to educate the community. So she started Join the Movement, an anti-human trafficking nonprofit.

State and local officials in the past few years have unequivocally stated: Human trafficking is taking place here—in Wisconsin, in Rock County and in Walworth County, too.

But no Walworth County cases have been charged under the human trafficking statute since January 2017, according to the district attorney’s office.

Some experts argue cases are not showing up in arrest and prosecution data because it’s often not a straightforward crime for law enforcement to investigate and prove.

Pam Carper said it can take time for the culture to change. In comparison, there wasn’t as much accountability for domestic violence 15 years ago as there is today, she said.

She is the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Central Wisconsin, which has a mentoring program for kids either escaping human trafficking or those who are at risk for it.

“It’s just a matter of having your eyes open,” she said. “Seeing what’s happening.”

‘When we hear the term’

Heath said she gives talks anywhere—schools, conventions and libraries. She trains people in the hospitality industry.

She spoke for an interview on her way back from a meeting about developing four awareness events in and near Milwaukee County, similar to ones that have been held in Elkhorn and Burlington.

But the term human trafficking is not completely understood by the general public, experts say.

A recent news release from Carper’s program, which has an office in Delavan and serves Dodge, Jefferson, Rock and Walworth counties, begins by addressing what some think human trafficking is.

“When we hear the term human trafficking, it brings to mind young girls being pulled off the street, put into a van and shipped to foreign countries,” the release states.

But as those who work to prevent human trafficking have said, the reality is more broad and closer to home than many might think.

Join the Movement, Heath’s group, refers to human trafficking as “modern slavery.”

Submitted Photo 

A stop human trafficking poster hangs on a community bulletin board shared by the Walworth County Housing Authority and New Beginnings APFV in Elkhorn. The site takes people to the Wisconsin Department of Justice website, specifically the section on human trafficking.

“Trafficking” in the state statute is defined as, “recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining, or attempting to recruit, entice, harbor, transport, provide, or obtain, an individual.”

Walworth County District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld said that along with the statutory definition, he also references one from the Tree House Child and Family Center: “The unethical and selfish use of human beings to fulfill desires and/or make a profit. It includes labor and/or sexual exploitation.”

“I think people think of human trafficking as people from other countries being shipped in cages to the United States to be exploited,” he said. “It’s a much broader problem than that.”

What traditionally has been known as the pimping of prostitutes is considered human trafficking, Wiedenfeld said. It’s involves the financial benefit going to another person.

Carper said the public did not understand the topic as well even 12 to 18 months ago.

But she said groups such as anti-human trafficking task forces in Rock and Walworth counties have given to places such as hospitals, schools, libraries and the hospitality industry—places that she said should be on the lookout for victims.

“It’s a hard thing to gauge how frequently it’s occurring because it’s a hard crime to identify,” Wiedenfeld said.

Challenges to enforcement

The Walworth County DA’s office found no cases charged under the human trafficking statute in 2½ years, and all but one of the handful charged under the child trafficking statute involved police sting operations without real child victims. Police posed as teen girls and later arrested men who agreed to meet them for sex.

The one Walworth County child trafficking case in that time led to a prison sentence. Octavion L. Keith, convicted of benefiting from trafficking a 15-year-old girl between November 2016 and March 17, 2017, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Wiedenfeld said at the sentencing that Keith did not groom the girl, who was the case’s only victim. Otherwise, the DA would have called for a prison sentence of more than 10 years.

The DA’s office also charged two men for having sex with the girl.

And yet, while there’s consensus among experts that human trafficking is happening in Walworth County, why have there not been more arrests or prosecutions for trafficking?

A message repeated in several interviews for this story was: Victims don’t always know they’re victims.

Heath remembered a presentation in Racine County where a girl in attendance had no idea her someone was grooming her.

“We were able to make a difference,” Heath said.

Wiedenfeld said understanding the human trafficking victim’s state of mind is something he’s become more conscious of in recent years. And he has learned more about how manipulation and control play into that mentality.

The movement of victims from one city or state to another could affect a local DA’s ability to file charges. Did an illegal sex act occur in his county?

On the police side, the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office in recent years has changed how it investigates prostitution. It reported an increase in investigations for soliciting prostitutes—from none in 2015 and 2016, to three in 2017 to 19 in 2018, according to the office’s annual report.

Detectives have received training on investigating human trafficking, Capt. Robert Hall said in 2018.

“In 2017, we started working prostitution cases because we know we’re having problems with it as it relates to human trafficking,” he said. “So, we’ve been gearing up.”

Still, Wiedenfeld said identifying the traffickers is difficult. But that’s why he said it’s important to educate the public and help more people recognize the warning signs.

Carper agreed.

“Part of the reporting is getting the knowledge out,” she said. “Where in the past it was just one of those words you just weren’t real sure about.”

Talking about it

The Big Brothers Big Sisters program is called E3—encourage, empower and energize those struggling to break free from human trafficking or who are showing signs of falling in.

Carper said the Janesville Police Department approached her about setting up the program.

“Human trafficking degrades our society and derails the lives of young people who can become trapped in a life not of their own choosing, thereby denying society of all the potential that a young person has to contribute to the world in a positive, productive way,” the news release states.

On the prevention side, what do the warning signs look like?

Heath said they can include a person having two phones, wearing clothes that seem out of the ordinary, being away from friends, having an older boyfriend or girlfriend, going away for a weekend and not remembering or sharing where they were.

She also referenced an April story in The Gazette on homeless students in local school districts, emphasizing how vulnerable they could be.

Tattoos that are essentially acts of branding are another possible sign.

That showed up in a 2015 Janesville case, according to a search warrant. But it does not appear in this case that prosecutors charged the man with trafficking.

Carper said they need mentors for the kids coming into their program.

She’s trying to get the word out. So are a lot of local officials.

Heath said it’s getting easier to talk about the subject.

“A year ago, from January to the end of April, I think I had … six presentations,” she said. “This year, in that timeframe I had 28.”

Anthony Wahl 

Fairgoers swing by as the sun sets behind the midway Saturday evening at the Rock County 4-H Fair in Janesville.

Despite calls to start over, US health system covers 90%


America’s much-maligned health care system is covering 9 out of 10 people, a fact that hasn’t stopped the 2020 presidential candidates from refighting battles about how to provide coverage, from Bernie Sanders’ call for replacing private insurance with a government plan to President Donald Trump’s pledge to erase the Affordable Care Act and start over.

The politicians are depicting a system in meltdown. The numbers point to a different story, not as dire and more nuanced.

Government surveys show that about 90% of the population has coverage, largely preserving gains from President Barack Obama’s years. Independent experts estimate that more than half of the roughly 30 million uninsured people in the country are eligible for health insurance through existing programs.

Lack of coverage was a growing problem in 2010 when Democrats under Obama passed his health law. Now the bigger issue seems to be that many people with insurance are struggling to pay their deductibles and copays.

“We need to have a debate about coverage and cost, and we have seen less focus on cost than we have on coverage,” said Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. He is among the Democratic presidential candidates who favor building on the current system, not replacing it entirely, as does Sanders. “The cost issue is a huge issue for the country and for families,” Bennet said.

A report this year by the Commonwealth Fund think tank in New York found fewer uninsured Americans than in 2010 but more who are “underinsured,” a term that describes policyholders exposed to high out-of-pocket costs, when compared with their individual incomes. The report estimated 44 million Americans were underinsured in 2018, compared with 29 million in 2010 when the law was passed. That’s about a 50% increase, with the greatest jump among people with employer coverage.

“When you have 90 percent of the American people covered and they are drowning in their health care bills, what they want to hear from politicians are plans that will address their health care costs, more than plans that will cover the remaining 10 percent,” said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks the health care system. “When Democrats talk about universal coverage more than health care costs, they are playing to the dreams of activists and progressives ... much less to the actual concerns of the 90 percent who have coverage today.”

Sanders’ office responds that the Vermont senator’s “Medicare for All” plan would solve both the coverage and cost problems for individual Americans. Medical care would be provided with no deductibles or copays. No one would be uninsured or underinsured.

“The simple answer is that our health care system becomes more unmanageable for more and more Americans every year,” Sanders spokesman Keane Bhatt said in a statement. “This is not a system that needs a few tweaks. This is a system that needs a complete overhaul.”

But other countries that provide coverage for all and are held up by Sanders as models for the U.S. don’t offer benefits as generous as he’s proposing. If he is elected president, there’s no way of telling how his plan would emerge from Congress, or even whether something like it could pass.

Four other 2020 Democrats are co-sponsors of Sanders’ bill: Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Trump is talking about big changes. His administration is seeking to have federal courts declare the entire Obama-era health care law unconstitutional, jeopardizing coverage for 20 million people, jettisoning protections for patients with preexisting conditions, and upending the rest of the 970-page statute, now nearly 10 years old.

The president says there’s nothing to worry about. Earlier this summer Trump told ABC News that he was working on a plan that would provide “phenomenal health care,” protect people with pre-existing conditions, and would be “less expensive than ‘Obamacare’ by a lot.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement that the Obama law was “sold and passed on a litany of broken promises” and now “Democrats are proposing even more radical government takeovers of our health care system.”

As president-elect, Trump promised a health plan but never offered one upon taking office. Instead he backed bills from congressional Republicans, including one he called “mean” during a private meeting.

Trump says he might come out with his new plan within months, but that passing it would hinge on his getting re-elected and Republicans winning back the House in 2020 while keeping control of the Senate.

That’s a bit of political deja vu.

Republicans controlled Washington back in 2017 when Trump, then-Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried for months to repeal and replace the Obama law, only to fail. The repeal effort was widely seen as contributing to Republicans losing the House in 2018.

Since then, many GOP lawmakers have tried to avoid the issue altogether.

Economist Sara Collins of the Commonwealth Fund, who led the study about underinsured Americans, says cost and coverage problems are intertwined. Citing the Democrats’ debate over Medicare for All, she says what’s missing from that discussion is that “one doesn’t have to go that far in order to improve the financial situation for millions of people—you can do that with much more targeted, incremental policies.”

Obituaries and death list for July 28, 2019

Dianne M. Arner

William J. Byrne

Carl W. “Bill” Carlson

Nancy Ann Deily

Helen F. Dickerson

David L. Hudson

Allen Charles Lehman

Seth Connor Stricklin

Mary Ann Thompson

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New in the opioid toolkit: fentanyl test strips


As the opioid epidemic continues on its tragic course, those trying to help sometimes find it hard just keeping people alive.

That’s why Narcan/naloxone is distributed to anyone who wants to have the overdose-stopping drug on hand.

That’s why the Aids Resource Center of Wisconsin distributes clean needles, to make sure intravenous drug users don’t infect one another with used needles.

Now there’s a new weapon in the “harm-reduction” toolkit: fentanyl test strips.

The strips allow users to test their drugs before use. The test will tell them if fentanyl is present. It won’t tell them how much fentanyl is there, but just knowing could save a life.

Law enforcement agencies here and around the country have found a great proportion of overdose deaths in recent years have come from heroin or other drugs laced with the heroin-like synthetic drug called fentanyl.

In Janesville, for example, fentanyl was found in the blood of all 14 people who died of overdoses in 2017.

In Beloit, fentanyl figured in two of six overdose deaths in 2017 and seven of nine deaths in 2018.

Fentanyl, often included in what is sold as heroin on the street, is said to be 50 times more powerful than heroin. A user who prepares the usual dose of what he thinks is heroin might get a hugely more powerful effect.

Heroin, fentanyl and other opioids slow the breathing and the heart. Enough of the drugs will eventually stop breathing and heartbeat. The user dies.

The Aids Resource Center of Wisconsin started distributing the test strips from its Beloit office in April.

A Canadian company, BTNX, developed the strips so companies could test prospective employees, said Mat Hazelberg, prevention specialist for the Aids Resource Center.

To the company’s credit, it didn’t raise its prices when studies showed the strips could be used to save drug users’ lives, Hazelberg said.

Hazelberg said the user prepares the drug for injection with a clean cooking tin, sets it aside and then adds water to the cooking spoon or tin and dips the test strip into the liquid.

In a few minutes, the strip reveals one red line for fentanyl or two lines for no fentanyl.

The strips will detect 12 kinds of fentanyl, including carfentanil, which is much more powerful than other forms.

The strips have not been tested for use with all the fentanyl variants, Hazelberg said, and they won’t detect heroin, morphine or other opioid drugs.

Hazelberg said the organization started distributing the strips in Milwaukee in January and later expanded statewide.

The resource center dispenses the strips for free but requires users to be instructed in their safe use.

Users of the strips overwhelmingly report they are likely to engage in safer drug use by using less of the drug, using only with someone else, taking turns using, and carrying naloxone, Hazelberg said.

The resource center also distributes naloxone.

Hazelberg said users have reported finding fentanyl in crack cocaine and methamphetamine, combinations which can be more dangerous than when used with opioids.

Hazelberg said fentanyl-laced marijuana is possible, but he thinks it would be rare and there’s some “hysteria” on the topic lately.

Not everyone agrees that the test strips are a good response to the epidemic.

“The entire approach is based on the premise that a drug user poised to use a drug is making rational choices, … Based on my clinical experience, I know this could not be further from the truth,” wrote Elinore McCance-Katz, a physician and assistant secretary with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in a blog post last fall.

“It is not inconceivable that people who are severely addicted will actually use the test strips to seek fentanyl, which might be able to give them the high that their current opioid no longer gives them—and which will place them at risk for overdose and death, McCance-Katz wrote.

Hazelberg said most users don’t want fentanyl because it doesn’t last as long, doesn’t work as well in warding off withdrawal symptoms and is more sedating than euphoric.

“So, half the time they’re staring at their shoes,” he said.

Hazelberg did acknowledge, however, that there will always be people who seek particular drugs.

“… Our goal always must be to get people the help they need,” McCance-Katz continued. “There is known, life-saving, evidence-based, medication-assisted treatment available to individuals who have these conditions. Let’s not write off their access to that; let’s not determine in advance that they won’t seek help, and let’s not rationalize putting tools in place to help them continue their lifestyle more ‘safely.’ ”

McCance-Katz said the federal government has released more than $2 billion to fight the opioid crisis since Donald Trump took office and pledged more is on the way.