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How Milwaukee Became a Human Trafficking Hub

Billboards were displayed nationwide as part of the FBI's continuing efforts to stop the sex trafficking of children.

Earlier this month, an article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper called Milwaukee a “hub for human trafficking.” Just last month, nine adolescents across Wisconsin were rescued from commercial sexual exploitation in a sting by the FBI.

Journalist Zoe Sullivan says trafficking and the illicit sex trade is an endemic problem in Milwaukee. "Considering that you're looking at cities like Houston, or Los Angeles or Atlanta, which are much bigger, I think it does show that there is a pretty significant issue. Especially because it is showing up consistently," she says.

In her article, Sullivan points to many issues that have contributed to Milwaukee becoming a hub. "Given the fact that Milwaukee does have a very high unemployment rate, there’s a lot of economic disparity, that is certainly a big factor to take into consideration," says Sullivan. However, economics are not the only underlying issue. She says sexual abuse, lack of support and resources and other factors also play a role.

A whole underground economic system is behind trafficking in Milwaukee, Sullivan notes. "It's not just the sex act in itself that keeps the industry going. There are people who provide transportation, there are people who provide security, do hair, make outfits, make meals...," she explains. "There are a whole series of things that can be informal employment that’s off the books, that allows people to keep going, that allows them to survive, but that is also enmeshed with the commercial sex trade."

Though there are bills being introduced in the state legislature, such as the safe harbor bill that decriminalizes commercial sex for minors, protecting them instead of arresting them for prostitution, Sullivan says that is not enough.

A lot more needs to be taken into account and happen beyond the bill, she says. "It's also worth thinking about is this bill really going to really fix a problem?"

An additional bill mandates children have an advocate present while being interviewed by law enforcement. Sullivan says this is an improvement since minors can be easily intimidated and pressured into identifying or testifying against the people who have trafficked them, which can create consequences for them.

There is no doubt that human trafficking is a complicated issue for the City of Milwaukee, and Sullivan believes that local media attention is key to uncovering the industry and holding people accountable. While she did write her report for an international organization, she expresses concern that the purchase of the Journal Sentinel by the Gannett Media Group will compromise the local resources and knowledge it can provide.

"The issue of trafficking is a really complicated issue that requires time and resources and depth to get into to really unravel. As a citizen of the state, I would be concerned that the kind of media attention that can really hold people accountable and start uncovering the roots of some of these problems may be dismantled," says Sullivan.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.