WISCONSIN (NBC 26) — Across the United States, and even here in Wisconsin, human trafficking is something experts say happens every day. Oftentimes experts describe human trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery.
“Trafficking is absolutely happening in our communities and it's oftentimes connected to those vulnerabilities in places where people are maybe struggling or need access to resources or maybe they are struggling emotionally and don’t have that support system and are seeking that support system,” said Megan Cutter, the Director of the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by Polaris.
“When someone is compelled to have sex in exchange for money or something else of value through means of force, fraud or coercion. Or if they are compelled to work through means of force, fraud, or coercion. The only exception to that is if someone is under the age of 18 and they are involved in commercial sex or sex in exchange for something in value. That is automatically is considered human trafficking under federal law here in the United States. So that is a really important distinction,” Cutter said.
She says trafficking can fall into two different umbrellas: sex trafficking and labor trafficking.
“Often the misconception about the crime is that people, particularly children are targeted off the streets and kidnapped and brought into sex trafficking situations. And while that sometimes does happen, it’s very rare compared to what we typically see which is individuals recruit people in their lives who they know, someone who might be vulnerable,” Cutter said.
According to Cutter, children victims of trafficking can become exploited by an adult that they might trust.
She shares a scenario below:
“Tells this victim ‘Oh, you want to become famous, I can help you become a model or singer or you want a new cell phone I can give you that,’ through this process we call grooming. With that process they build trust, they build connection, and then ultimately they begin to exploit the victim and you start to force them to have sex for money or sex in exchange for drugs or whatever the case might be, “ Cutter said.
She says social media makes things easier for people to pretend to be someone else they’re not.
“They can sort of not share certain pieces of their identity but they can still create this relationship of false trust, which particularly for children and young adults feels very compelling and appealing. Once there’s that level of trust between the victim and perpetrator, then the perpetrator starts to demand specific things, or threaten the person and it can become a situation of human trafficking. So online recruitment especially for minors is something we particularly see,” Cutter said.
She explains the core piece of human trafficking or what allows this crime to happen is vulnerability.
“When we think about vulnerability, it can be things that are often times are created by systems that have failed specific individuals. So it can be someone who may be really experiencing poverty, it might be someone who doesn’t have a support system at home or maybe they’ve been discriminated against their gender or sexual identity, maybe they’ve been impacted by things like systematic racism. And so when all those systems are sort of underlying and creating vulnerability for someone that can lead to human trafficking because that person is looking to have their need met in some way and then an exploiter can take advantage of that,” Cutter said.
Sometimes she says that vulnerability can have something to do with drugs.
“Whether that’s someone who's struggling with a substance abuse issue before they come in contact with their trafficker and then their trafficker identifies that and uses it to exploit them or traffickers sometimes use that as a means of control. So once the situation has started, a trafficker may then induce an addiction in someone and start providing them with drugs in order to better control, and also in order to ensure that there’s this relationship of the person continues to need access to drugs due to their substance abuse challenge that the trafficker has created,” Cutter said.
She said it’s often times it’s really difficult for someone to see another person out in public or on public transportation, or at a place like a hotel, and say, "Oh, that person is a victim of human trafficking."
She says that is actually really rare.
“People who have context and proximity to victims and survivors are good resources to help victims and survivors,” Cutter said.
Watch below as she explains a scenario:
“I think a misconception often about human trafficking is that it involves movement and part of that is because the word trafficking is in the crime and we think of trafficking, we often think of other crimes when there is movement from one state to another or from one country to another. But human trafficking can happen within an individual home, within a town, within a city, it can also involve movement across states or countries,” Cutter said.
She said sometimes trafficking victims aren’t isolated and do have the ability to have interactions with the public or contact with their families.
“A lot of that is because the means of control that traffickers are using are more coercive than physical force, so a trafficker might threaten a victim’s children and say ‘If you don’t do what I say I’m going to hurt your kids,' or 'If you don’t do what I say, I’m going to tell your whole family that you are having sex for money and they’re going to be really ashamed of you,'” Cutter said.
Cutter explains the mental abuse aspect of it plays a big factor.
“Because the methods of control don’t always involve this physical abuse or being held against their will physically, although they are unable to leave their situation because of the means of control the trafficker is using,” Cutter said.
She shares a story about a trafficking survivor who beat the odds.
For one Fond du Lac County Emergency Dispatcher she says she hears stories everyday.
"We get stories everyday of kids who take off and they don't tell anybody where they're going," said Cassie Kohn, Fond du Lac County Emergency Dispatcher. “The first thing that comes up in my head is the sex trafficking situations."
Just a couple years ago, Kohn helped save a young girl who was being held captive.
She was on the other side of the phone when the victim dialed 9-1-1.
“Don’t remember how exactly she got out of the house, but she snuck out and then she was hiding behind things in the yard," Kohn said. "She described her surroundings because she didn’t know where she was and we had that general location so we were kind of able to put it all together and figure out where she was and told her to just run until we could get someone to her."
Whether that situation was related to a human trafficking case or not, that is not know. But that certainly doesn't rule it out of question.
Kohn said she did her best to help get the gal out of the situation.
"When she said that she was being held captive, I went into more details. I asked her more questions," Kohn said.
To read more stories about survivors and their journey click here.
You can also click here for more information on statistics regarding human trafficking.