Sex trafficking in Northeast Wisconsin

Posted: 11:09 PM, Oct 29, 2018
Updated: 2018-10-31 12:07:24-04

When you think of your daughters, your sons, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, you don't expect them to get caught in a trap leaving 21 million people in the world victims of sex trafficking, according to experts.

"I didn't know that I was free. I wasn't locked up in a basement somewhere. I was free to walk. In fact, many times we'd walk past police station. We'd walk past hospitals to get to our route. At any time I could've stopped in there, and said, 'Hey,I need help,' but it was likeI didn't realize that I was free," said Colleen Stratton, a survivor of sex trafficking,

Stratton said she was five years old when she was sexually abused. 

To cover her pain on the inside, she began cutting herself at age seven.

Then she turned to drugs and alcohol when she 11 and 12 which sent her life into a series of overdoses and more pain.

Her parents sent her to a treatment center in Florida when she was in her 20s, but instead of going to the center, she got a hotel room with the money her parents gave her.

When the money ran out, she became homeless.

Later, a man approached her, offering to take her in.

That man became her trafficker until she finally left the life and moved back to Wisconsin.

Now she's using her story to help other survivors.

"It's not just a big city problem. It is a local problem," said Sgt. Matthew Wilson of the Brown County Sheriff's Office.

He said sex trafficking is happening in all 72 counties in Wisconsin.

He said they just began tracking the number of people being trafficked in our area, so they don't have an exact number but cases come in on a weekly basis.

"It's always been here. It's just now we're being more vigilant, and we're more educated. We're more well trained on where to find the things, and how to find them, so I think that's what's literally sparking, if you will, like an uprise in it," added Wilson.

Experts said these men and women being trafficked locally aren't getting snatched up on the streets and sold to other regions or countries like many believe.

Shelby Mitchell is a sex trafficking victim advocate for Family Services' Sexual Assault Center. 

She said you don't have to cross any borders to become a victim of sex trafficking.

"You can be trafficked in the town that you live in and still have that crime occur to you so no movement has to happen for that to take place," said Mitchell.

How are these traffickers gaining control of people in our area?

"We see a lot of times that traffickers are going after people who are vulnerable," said Mitchell.

She added many times people with drug or alcohol additions, the homeless, those distant from family, or with low self esteem are targets.

"There was really no fear about going with a strange man like I literally, I didn't care anymore," said Stratton.

"They're wanting to get to know your daughter or son," said Wilson, "get into some sort of potential romantic relationships with them, get them to trust them."

Experts said traffickers often prey on potential victims through social media or online chat rooms.

The average age is 8 to fourteen according to experts, but they said it can happen to anyone.

"This is happening to college kids, as well. This isn't just young teenagers or anything," said Wilson.

There are many warning signs someone may be a victim of sex trafficking.

"They're going to turn that around and use that against them of, 'Hey I bought you these certain items. I paid for your hair. I've paid for your car payment, your cell phone payment. Now I need you to do something for me,'" said Wilson.

"When you have drilled in your head all day long, 'This is all you're ever going to be,' that's what your trafficker tells you every day, day in and day out, you know, you believe it," said Stratton.

How can you stay safe when traffickers are in our area?

Experts said to make sure you aren't making yourself seem vulnerable by staying in groups especially at night.

If you're alone, a trafficker may see you as vulnerable.

"What we tell people is trust your gut," said Wilson, "Don't give your number out. Don't give your address. Don't do certain things. These people don't need to know this."

Experts said you should also talk to your family about these precautions as well as internet safety.

If you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.