News 8 Investigates: Human Trafficking

News 8 Investigates: Human Trafficking

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - Terry Smith was married to a polygamist when she was eight years old.

Her husband at the time was 22.

The marriage wasn't legal. But she was born to a fundamentalist Mormon family in the 1970's and it was part of her family's history to be married as a child.

"It's intergenerational in my family, some of the abuse and history of that, my mother went through and my grandmother went through."

She grew up in a small town between La Crosse and Eau Claire.

Terry mostly lived a sheltered life, which included no visits to a real doctor. But when she failed home schooling, a public school was her saving grace.

"Teachers that knew something was going on, a lot of teachers helped me."

At eight years old, Terry wasn't familiar with what most would consider a normal childhood.

Among the sexual and mental abuse she suffered, she was forced to smuggle drugs, often at truck stops in Wisconsin Dells.

"I remember them hiding them (drugs) on me, in the safety chairs, you know all of that kind of stuff, and there was definitely a trade of sex for drugs."

Terry lived almost all of her life as a sex trafficking victim.

She says she didn't realize she was being sex trafficked until she started college. 

"One of my first signs that I had such a different lifestyle was I did childhood development classes for my psychology major, and I had to take them like three times before I could pass it because I just didn't know what the normal childhood was like."

It didn't all come together that she was a victim until she was in her 40s.

That's the reality for the 100,000 or more children who are sex trafficked every year in the United States. 

Like Terry, most victims don't know they are victims. 

In 2016, Wisconsin had 65 reported cases of human trafficking.

54 of those cases were sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Last year, there were 47 reported cases of human trafficking in the state.  34 were sex trafficking cases. 

These cases only represent calls or texts to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which in the last two years, received a total of 472 phone calls of human trafficking in Wisconsin. 

This made Wisconsin the state with the 21st highest call volume in all of 50 states.

But there are many more cases in Wisconsin and in La Crosse County, that have not been reported.

The lack of a reliable estimate of the number of sex trafficking cases is partly due to the hidden and illicit nature of the crime. 

The other part, is awareness.

Detective Sergeant of Sensitive Crimes with the La Crosse Police Department Tim O'Neill, says the department wasn't required to report sex trafficking cases to the FBI until 2016.

Because in the past, it wasn't identified as a crime that occurred in regularity, and there simply wasn't enough awareness on the issue.

Since 2016, police identified two official child sex trafficking cases in La Crosse County.

But they suspect there are far more cases beyond what the numbers show.

"Based on information that we've gathered throughout the investigations that we've worked. Several sex assault victims have been victimized by not one but several different suspects that's an indicator right there that this is occurring."

O'Neill says unlike other crimes, sex trafficking is one of the hardest to track.

"It may not be entirely difficult to identify it, it's more of a problem trying to find people who want to tell us what is going on."  

Sex trafficking victims are taught and trained not to cooperate with law enforcement. 

Their traffickers often promise them financial and emotional security. 

Leaving victims powerless in changing their own circumstances.

For victims who do want help, there is fear they would be prosecuted for a crime they were forced to be a part of.

"A lot of the early coaching that I got was exactly what I could and what I couldn't say."

Perpetrators often use force, fraud or coercion to manipulate and gain control over victims.

Terry was usually reluctant to run away or get law enforcement involved for fear of retaliation by her trafficker. 

"All of the things that you can be given can also be taken away and so that's used to control you and used to control the experiences."

Franciscan Sister Marlene Weisenbeck started The La Crosse Task Force to Eradicate Modern Slavery in 2013.

She made it her mission to raise awareness on the issue after being asked by the Obama Administration to join the United States Advisory on human trafficking.

It was then she learned La Crosse was not immune to the crime.

From 2014 to 2017, the taskforce helped five victims and survivors of sex trafficking in La Crosse County.

Weisenbeck is now working to provide services for victims and works closely with local agencies to help track encounters with victims.

But she says there's a lot more work to be done.

"To name it for what it is, because often it has been associated with prostitution, drug addiction, sexual assault, and all of those things are related in some way, so it isn't that nothing has ever been done, but to zero in on why those things are happening."

Law enforcement officials say as long as there is demand for sex trafficking, it won't ever stop.

Sex trafficking is an estimated $9 billion industry in the U.S., making it the second largest source of profit after drugs.

Investigators explain it can happen to anyone, rich or poor, men or women, adults or children, leaving those who are able to find a way out with lasting scars. 

"I have flashbacks all the time, you know I've been working on it for a while so I certainly have ways of coping with that, one of the reasons I have a service dog is she wakes me up from nightmares, I have insomnia basically because the nightmares are flashbacks."

Terry's Mission is to now raise awareness on sex trafficking. She wants the attitude of denial to change. She's hoping more people will come to learn that sex trafficking is not just a big city problem. 

"In some ways it's harder in this part of the state because we don't think in small towns it's happening, but I want people to know that in small towns are the covers."

There are now seven assembly bills waiting to be passed in Wisconsin to track human trafficking. 

Just last year, the Wisconsin Department of Justice created a Human Trafficking Bureau because in nearly every county in Wisconsin, law enforcement reported cases of human trafficking.

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