LA CROSSE, Wis. - It's a big problem nationally that you might think doesn't happen here, but human trafficking is a reality in the La Crosse area and there are ongoing efforts to try to stop it.
Human trafficking is defined as a form of modern-day slavery, in which traffickers use force or coercion to make their victims work, often in the sex industry. There were 50 human trafficking cases reported in Wisconsin last year.
It's an underground issue that's difficult to see, so the La Crosse Task Force to Eradicate Modern Slavery (TFEMS) spent the last year researching human trafficking locally, and found our area is not immune to the problem.
"Once you learn about it, if you have a conscious at all you cannot help but be horrified by it,” Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, convener of the task force, said.
Human trafficking is an issue she's passionate about fighting.
"It's a hidden economy,” she said. “A huge economy globally."
She said it's an issue locally as well, and her task force set out to reveal that.
"When we started our work four years ago most people said it’s not an issue,” Weisenbeck said.
TFEMS works with victims of human trafficking. This past year, it sent out questionnaires to 86 La Crosse area organizations that may be exposed to victims of trafficking. It found that of the 39 that responded, 18 say they have had encounters with human trafficking victims.
"We're discovering locally the extent that it might be operative here in the coulee region,” Weisenbeck said. “And if we discover more, it’s hard to answer the question, ‘Is it growing?’ or are we just finding out what really exists?"
The committee's research also shows that the greatest needs for local agencies to help trafficking victims is more knowledge, increased funding, improved trauma-informed care and a coordinated local response.
While investigator Tony DeLap, of the La Crosse Police Department, said human trafficking is not as big of an issue locally as in other parts of the state, they have had cases, and do keep an eye out for it, looking more and more to the internet as part of the investigation.
"That's where the majority of the advertising, so to speak, is,” DeLap said.
While many of the ads certain websites are for prostitution, and not necessarily human trafficking, DeLap said they do get tips from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children on ads on the pages made by people who may be underage , “which we do take seriously and look into right away."
DeLap said it's difficult to tackle human trafficking, especially because often times victims are scared to speak up.
"They're worried about getting in trouble,” he said.
To offer victims some protection, state Rep. Jill Billings will be introducing legislation next week, in line with national human trafficking awareness month and day, so coerced children wouldn't be arrested as prostitutes.
"Rather than labeling them as prostitutes, bring them in through human services get them services they need, make sure they don't have that stigma attached,” Billings said.
Weisenbeck hopes teaching others that human trafficking is a real issue will make them join her in the fight.
"All of us who have ever been involved in anti-human trafficking realize we can’t do it alone,” she said.
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