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.”
“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.
“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.”