Along the I-41 corridor, from Milwaukee to Green Bay, young, vulnerable teenagers have been lured into the dangerous and hidden world of sex trafficking.
Human trafficking is happening in every county in the state, according to law enforcement and advocacy groups, but Milwaukee, Appleton and Green Bay are some "hot spots" for sex trafficking in the state.
There are many misconceptions about sex trafficking, particularly that prostitution is a victimless crime. However, Appleton Police Lieutenant Steve Elliott knows that is far from the case.
After seven years leading the street crimes unit for Appleton Police, he saw that many women were not prostitutes, but victims.
"We realized that there was heavy coercion and manipulation going on in many different ways," said Lt. Elliott.
In all his years fighting the problem in the Fox Valley, one story stays with him. A victim started dating a man, and he ended up moving in with her and her child.
"One day, the victim came home to her quote unquote boyfriend, and the child wasn't there," Lt. Elliott said. "At that point that switch flicked, that personality changed, and the trafficker, that was now known to this woman, basically said if you want to see your little one again, you're going to go have sex for money."
"Anyone who is a parent would understand, or anyone who has a little one that they love, how horrible that would be if you didn't know where they were."
One misconception is that traffickers are abducting their victims, according to Lt. Elliott. What they actually do is manipulate victims through a process called grooming, he said.
"The flattery and gifts, the older boyfriend, promise of adventure and travel," he said. "They isolate these girls."
The traffickers make young victims think they're dating, preying on their vulnerabilities.
"It's not what you see in the movies, it's not that van that drives up and picks up that girl," said Dawn Quait, part of the leadership team for the organization 5 Stones.
5 Stones is a volunteer organization that works with Lieutenant Elliott and other Fox Valley groups to educate people on the problem and help victims.
"It's very hidden," Quait said.
80% of human trafficking in Wisconsin is sex trafficking, according to 5 Stones.
The biggest problem is getting victims help that actually works, Quait said.
"Because it can take 7-10 years of just basic services to get a victim to a survivor," she explained.
There's also still a misconception that trafficking doesn't happen here in Northeast Wisconsin, but advocates say the I-41 corridor makes it easy for traffickers to bring victims from Milwaukee.
"You need men, because that's usually the people who are buying the sex, you need hotels or motels, you need computers, and highways," said Lt. Elliott. "That's all you need."
That's why law enforcement and advocacy groups have come together in an Outagamie County Steering Committee to fight the problem.
"You can't arrest your way out of this problem, it's absolutely impossible," said Lt. Elliott.
Lt. Elliott also sits on the state anti-human trafficking task force. In the second part of our investigation into the human trafficking problem on Friday, NBC26 will look more into that task force, what it's accomplished so far, and what it's goals are for the future to battle this issue.