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A Crime Hidden in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking in Milwaukee

Photo by Allison Dikanovic
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

The commercial sex trade industry works like any other market, with supply and demand. Experts say that a stronger emphasis on deterring people from purchasing sex in Milwaukee would address a root cause of the problem.

Martha Kuhlman looked down, feeling outside of her body. She saw herself climb into the backseat of a car in a body-hugging dress as a man promised to go get her money. Instead of cash, he returned with a knife in hand. Before tossing her out onto the curb, the man strangled the young woman until she lost consciousness.

Kuhlman is a survivor of human trafficking. Her attacker was just one of many men who purchased sex from her while she was trafficked from age 14 to 19. Kuhlman said that an average day for her in the sex trade included eight to 10 encounters with such men, referred to as johns, and she never saw any of them face repercussions.

“Nothing happens,” Kuhlman said, shaking her head. “Nothing happens to them.”

In Milwaukee, those who purchase sex, whether from prostitutes or victims of sex trafficking — and it’s often difficult to distinguish between the two — rarely face consequences in the criminal justice system.

However, most exchanges within the commercial sex industry go unreported with no arrests made. Of the cases where arrests occur, individuals who purchase sex can face criminal charges, but they also can be issued a municipal ticket, deferred to alternative treatment programs or have the charges dropped completely.

According to data provided by the Milwaukee Police Department, in 2015, 344 people were arrested for soliciting a prostitute in Milwaukee. Of those, 19 people participated in a “deferred prosecution” program instead of facing criminal charges, and 52 people were issued municipal citations for “loitering—soliciting prostitute.” In 2014, 407 were arrested, 52 completed the deferred prosecution program, and 57 were issued municipal citations.

As the number of arrests for prostitution has increased in recent years, from 65 in 2012 to 160 in 2014, the number of people arrested for soliciting a prostitute decreased by more than half, from 749 to 344. Milwaukee County community prosecutor Chris Ladwig attributed the dip in arrests of johns to programming aimed at reducing prostitution activity in Milwaukee, but he said that the numbers don’t indicate a decrease in people purchasing commercial sex. Rather, he said it could be that fewer are getting caught on the street as the crime goes further underground.

In fact, no data is available on the number of adult sex trafficking victims in Milwaukee, and there are only estimates of the number of minors at risk for trafficking. But experts say the extent of the problem is staggering.

Sgt. Theresa Janick, who investigates human trafficking cases in the city as a member of MPD’s prostitution unit, said that the sheer number of people who purchase sex makes it challenging for law enforcement to make a dent.

“There’s so much of it that it’s mind-blowing,” Janick said.

The invisible industry

Milwaukee repeatedly ranks among the top cities for human trafficking in an annual nationwide FBI sting to recover victims.

Legally, human trafficking is defined in Wisconsin as any situation “in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” Consequently, commercially exploited children are always considered trafficking victims.

There is no data available on the number of adult sex trafficking victims in Milwaukee. A study by the Medical College of Wisconsin documented 133 minors who were trafficked or suspected to be trafficked in 2014. However, this is likely a drop in the bucket. Detective Dawn Jones, who has worked for the Milwaukee Police Department on human trafficking in the city since 2007, said that Milwaukee is known nationwide for juveniles being trafficked in the commercial sex trade.

The number of youth at-risk for trafficking gives a better indication of the scope of the problem regarding minors. Exploit No More, a local nonprofit organization, reported that there are approximately 800 youth in Milwaukee who are homeless, have run away or receive emergency support services. Additionally, in 2013, there were 5,783 cases of child sexual abuse reported. These circumstances significantly increase a young person’s chances of being trafficked.

Katie Linn, the executive director of Exploit No More, said that these estimates "barely scratch the surface of what's going on."

“It’s in epidemic proportions. Milwaukee has been considered a hub for human trafficking and a space for pimps to grow. It’s an underground world,” said Dana World-Patterson, chair of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee.

The black market nature of the commercial sex trade makes it difficult to track how many individuals purchase sex in Milwaukee in a given year, and little research exists on the matter. It is “essentially a closed community between the victim and the offender,” said Assistant District Attorney Chad Wozniak. However, research conducted by the Urban Institute shows that the commercial sex industry in eight U.S. cities is estimated to be worth $39.9 to $290 million per city.

“(The victims) are a very lucrative product,” said Katie Linn, executive director of Exploit No More, a local nonprofit organization advocating for victims of human trafficking.

World-Patterson said that the city as a whole needs to focus more on decreasing the demand for commercial sex by paying attention to the people who purchase it. “In the survivors’ community, we call them predators (instead of johns),” she said. “They [could] play the biggest role in eradicating human trafficking because they create the demand.”

Vednita Carter, founder and president of the nationally recognized Minneapolis nonprofit Breaking Free, noted, “The demand is what keeps this fueled.” Carter, a trafficking survivor, added, “If you can stop the guy from purchasing, the pimp is going to be phased out.” Breaking Free works to end all forms of prostitution and sex trafficking.

Research conducted for the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that “demand-focused” approaches in certain cities, including San Francisco and Jersey City, New Jersey, reduced the size of sex trafficking markets by 40 to 80 percent.

Kuhlman said that as a survivor, she is frustrated by the perceived impunity that johns benefit from and wants to see tougher sentences for sex buyers.

“I think part of the issue is there’s virtually no criminal culpability (for the johns),” Linn added.

Credit Photo by Ni'Sea Wamubu-Thurman
Dana World-Patterson, chair of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee, is working to educate young men on the role they can play in ending the demand for commercial sex.

The victims

A bus full of rowdy, loud elementary school students drove past Sgt. Theresa Janick standing on a street corner near Lisbon Avenue, flinging jeers out the window as easily as they fired spitballs in class earlier that day. Janick, who has worked undercover for MPD for four years, said that catcalling from passersby, no matter their age, is not unusual.

“Putting myself in those positions and seeing the tip of the iceberg of how (individuals in the sex trade are) treated is heartbreaking,” Janick said. She recollected feeling degraded after being offered items such as a cheeseburger in exchange for sex, and said she is always shocked when solicitors try to barter with her.

From her undercover work and work with victims of human trafficking, Janick said her view of individuals in the sex trade has changed.

“They’re a person. You’re a person,” she said. “That could definitely be me if I had those experiences and circumstances.”

Janick and detective Dawn Jones said that many of the sex workers they encounter were driven to the streets by circumstances. The average age of entry into the commercial sex trade is 13.

“The line between prostitution and human trafficking is very blurred,” Janick said.

Community prosecutor Chris Ladwig agreed that it’s often challenging to distinguish between the two situations.

“That’s the difficulty in prostitution. It’s very difficult to separate coercive behavior,” Ladwig said. “When you start peeling back the layers… you can oftentimes see decades of abuse and victimization.”

“What we see is an overlap of women who have had a mix of experiences, and it’s hard to generalize,” added Jeanne Geraci, executive director of the Benedict Center, which provides programming for women exiting prostitution. “Many women we work with can look back and identify times they were trafficked in their lives.”

Research shows that people experiencing poverty, homelessness, abuse or addictions are more at risk of being trafficked, but survivors and advocates point out that trafficking can affect anybody.

“When I share my story, I make sure to stress that anyone can be trafficked, no matter where you’re from or who you are,” said Laura Johnson, a human trafficking survivor from Milwaukee who now advocates on behalf of both survivors and victims. She wants everyone, especially young women, to be aware of what trafficking looks like.

World-Patterson, Linn and other local advocates said that often someone trusted and loved by the victim, such as a boyfriend or family member, first coerces girls to sell their bodies for commercial sex.

Janick said that she often hears from people that prostitution is a victimless crime. “It’s more like a ‘victim-full’ crime,” she said.

Jones agreed, saying that people justify purchasing commercial sex by rationalizing that the sex workers are consenting adults, but that is rarely the case. She said sex workers are almost always beaten and manipulated.

“Oftentimes customers have no idea how the victims are controlled,” Jones said. “It is a crime that is hidden in plain sight.”

John Doe

Laura Johnson’s brow furrowed as she thought about the customers who purchased sex from her when she was taken from her home in Milwaukee and trafficked from age 14 to 17, and then when she fell back into a life of prostitution.

“It was any kind of person. They can be anyone: blue collar workers, doctors, lawyers, public officials, fathers,” she said.

Police officers, advocates and survivors all agree that johns, or people purchasing sex, come from all walks of life and that many have power or influence. Although no research has been done in Milwaukee specifically, experts such as Vednita Carter say johns are relatively consistent from city to city and year to year.

“It doesn’t change too much,” Carter said. “It’s mainly older white guys from the suburbs that come into the community.”

In 2014, according to data collected by Breaking Free, the majority of sex buyers in Minneapolis were college-educated, married men between the ages of 30 and 49. Sixty-seven percent were white, and 66 percent had children.

Research conducted by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) found that 40 percent of buyers were African-American and 36 percent were white in Chicago. Sixty-two percent of buyers made more than $40,000 a year and 53 percent purchased sex regularly.

“A lot of people of affluence and influence are purchasing sex from minors,” Linn said, based on anecdotal evidence from survivors she works with.

When Johnson’s trafficker began to set her up on “dates,” he took photos of her in lingerie and posted them on Craigslist and Backpage. Such sites have become platforms for johns to purchase sex, experts say.

“The Internet has completely changed and proliferated this problem beyond our wildest imagination,” Linn said, explaining how it has streamlined the process of purchasing commercial sex and increased its accessibility. Research conducted by Arizona State University in 2013 shows that one out of every 20 adult males pursues online sex ads.

“It used to be that buyers would have to go out at odd hours of the night … in the community to find victims,” Linn said. “Now they can just go online and find a cellphone number of the person to call and it’s very much like flipping through a book picking out the person you want to be with.”

'You have to decide'

On a weekday early in the morning before the day shift starts, police officers wait patiently in line to talk to detective Dawn Jones of the MPD Sensitive Crimes Division after a special in-service training they just received about human trafficking.

“This could be your daughter,” Sgt. Theresa Janick said. When officers hear that the victims of human trafficking most often enter the sex trade as teenage girls, it gives them a new perspective on the issue. She added that she has never seen officers wait in line to speak with the instructor after other in-service trainings.

Jones said she has made it her mission to educate police officers on how to identify trafficking through extensive training in the department. She noted that instances of force, fraud or coercion or the exploitation of youth can be challenging to detect. “If you don’t have the trained eye out there, you’re going to miss that identification.”

“Street operations do lead us to trafficking, but so do any calls,” Janick said, explaining why it is important for officers in every unit to be aware of warning signs. She added that without knowing what to look for, officers can unintentionally ignore “treasure troves of evidence.”

Since 2007, Jones has trained more than 3,000 police officers in Wisconsin on human trafficking. Her objective is to have “officers as proficient in human trafficking as domestic violence.”

Both Jones and Janick said that, like domestic violence, law enforcement officers didn’t originally see human trafficking as a major problem that required their involvement.

As Jones goes through the stacks and stacks of files atop her desk, she listens to church music to keep her focused on why she continues to do this difficult work. In the two years prior to starting her job, Jones said that there were no human trafficking cases opened in Milwaukee. Within her first week, she opened several cases. The number fluctuates, but about 150 are now open. Jones said that beginning to investigate them was like opening Pandora’s Box.

“Prostitution and human trafficking are kind of the epicenter of every crime,” she said, alluding to drug busts and other illicit activity. “This leads to very complicated investigations that are labor intensive and time intensive.”

Jones said that some cases can require up to 30 separate search warrants and can take weeks to investigate properly because the evidence is often unconventional, underground and spread out. Conducting undercover trafficking operations is taxing on both time and manpower, occupying up to eight officers at a time, Janick added. Only three people work full time in the Sensitive Crimes Division, which handles the cases.

Law enforcement officials and advocates say that while many trafficking cases involve the victim, the john and the pimp, most investigations focus primarily on the victims and the trafficker but not the johns.

“You have to decide, do we go after the johns or do we save more juveniles?” Jones explained, adding, “We have so many child victims. I’d have to duplicate myself to be able to do all that work.”

She said that the division decides when and where to conduct sting operations and investigations depending on where juvenile victims are identified or suspected. Multiple operations are conducted some weeks, and none other weeks.

“If we suspect trafficking victims, we will do what we can to rescue them” and offer them services, Jones said. Agencies participating in the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee work to provide a continuum of care for victims.

Jones said that her partnership with Janick and District 3 makes the operations more effective. Police districts conduct sting operations targeting those who purchase sex separately from human trafficking investigations, which focus on rescuing victims. The stings that target sex buyers occur from several times a month to once every few months depending on the district, according to Jones.

On the prosecution side, it is not feasible to thoroughly investigate johns suspected of purchasing sex from trafficking victims, even when they are arrested, Ladwig said. “If we had a lot more resources in a perfect world, every case would be looked at from top to bottom to search for any instances of trafficking,” he said.

Carter said she has seen similar resourcing challenges in Minneapolis and in other places. “Law enforcement just doesn’t have the money (to fund anti-demand efforts), but they need to find it,” said Carter, of Breaking Free. “Until they do, it won’t stop.”

Other cities have found resources and support for demand-focused initiatives through organizations such as Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE Network), a Boston-based organization that provides grants and facilitates collaboration among cities working to target sex buyers.

It is more difficult to apprehend and prosecute those who purchase sex from a minor than those who purchase from adults on the street, Jones pointed out.

“It’s hard to get the john red-handed with the juvenile,” she said. Sting street operations to catch johns can only be conducted with an undercover officer who is of age and acting on her own volition. As a result, these types of stings cannot be used to apprehend perpetrators for soliciting a child for prostitution or for any human-trafficking related charges.

Even if someone is found to have purchased sex from a juvenile victim in the course of an investigation, Jones said that it is often challenging to prosecute because it can be traumatizing or scary for the young victim to testify in court.

Nevertheless, Jones said anyone who purchases sex from minors should be held accountable. “Anyone who obtains a child for prostitution is a trafficker,” she said. “People think and say, he’s just a john. No, he’s a trafficker.”

A new approach

In an approach new to Milwaukee, Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Davis has charged both the trafficker and the john in a recent case involving a minor.

Martin Rice, a 73-year-old white man from Granville, has been charged with two felonies after purchasing sex from an underage victim: soliciting a child for prostitution and second-degree sexual assault of a child. He could face up to 40 years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines if convicted.

Davis also filed multiple felony charges against Mandrell Blain and Mario Newburn, two men who allegedly trafficked the minor in the same case.

“In eight years, this is the first time I’ve seen a district attorney charge a john along with the traffickers,” Jones said. “She (Davis) definitely wants to attack all sides of the problem.” Jones added that she hopes this is the beginning of a trend.

In Minneapolis, charging johns for soliciting a child for prostitution, a felony, is already normal. The police department is conducting demand-focused stings as part of an effort called Operation Guardian Angel. The operations specifically target those soliciting sex from minors through fake online advertisements selling sex with an underage girl. Police officers set up “dates” with people who respond to the advertisements, and then arrest them when they show up at the designated location, usually a hotel.

From 2010 to 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of people charged under the statute that prohibits soliciting a child for prostitution nearly doubled, from 58 to 102.

Minneapolis authorities said that 2015 will be a “banner year” for enforcement of the statute. In September alone, 21 people were charged as a result of the sting operations.

Carter, of Breaking Free, said anti-demand efforts are a lot of work, “but we need it to be a continuous procedure for it to be effective.”

This added attention was focused on those who purchase sex in Minnesota after Safe Harbor laws were passed in 2011, which decriminalize youth involved in the sex trade and draw a stronger connection between child sexual exploitation and trafficking. Among other things, the laws increase penalties against sex abusers and purchasers.

In May, a safe harbor bill was introduced in the Wisconsin legislature.

Targeting demand

Complaints from residents about prostitution in their neighborhoods prompted an innovative community response to prostitution and trafficking in Milwaukee.

Community prosecutor Chris Ladwig works in close partnership with community members, the Benedict Center and the District 3 police on an effort called the Sisters Diversion Program, formerly known as Operation Red Light, which aims to address every facet of the problem.

He said one of the goals of the district attorney’s Community Prosecution Unit is to change the perception that there are no consequences for purchasing sex. “(Purchasers) think they can commit these crimes without repercussion,” he said. “We’re really working hard on those kinds of issues, but we could do more.”

Ladwig said the unit partners with Janick and other officers, primarily conducting street operations to apprehend sex workers, but also those who purchase sex.

The unit has begun to target the demand in several ways. If someone is suspected to be purchasing sex but cannot be arrested, Ladwig said his office sends a “john letter” to the residence associated with the car’s license plate. The letter typically says that the person was seen in an area where there has been a lot of prostitution activity and is intended to serve as a warning not to return.

A study conducted by Prostitution Research and Education found that 80 percent of sex buyers interviewed said that such a letter would deter them from purchasing.

Offenders can also be given municipal citations for soliciting a prostitute, which carry a fine up to a $699 in Milwaukee. National studies show that a $500 fine would deter 66 percent of sex buyers, and a $1,000 fine would deter 90 percent of buyers.

Experts say Cook County, Illinois, is a model for ticketing those who purchase sex. Starting in 2011, the county instituted a “Johns Ordinance” that increased the penalty for purchasing sex and emphasized enforcement of the statute.

“To solicit sex was little more than a slap on the wrist,” said Ben Bright of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. “We were seeing the same guys over and over again.”

The department conducts regular street and hotel operations and also leads a national coalition of cities around the country to promote the arrest of johns twice a year.

“We really have to work to suppress the demand side if we want to take on sex trafficking, so victims don’t come to be in the first place,” Bright said.

John school

A group of middle-age men sit around a table at the Benedict Center listening to a woman talk about her former life as a sex worker.

“[They] get to hear from women who used to be engaged in prostitution,” said Jeanne Geraci, executive director of the center. “They start to really see the women as human beings instead of commodities.”

Dana World-Patterson, chair of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee, said that many of the men who purchase sex need help. Research shows that 83 percent of sex buyers consider it an addiction.

“A person that would purchase sex has some kind of disorder,” World-Patterson said. “Something is wrong there.”

Since 2011, the Benedict Center has facilitated a restorative justice program for sex buyers, in addition to its ongoing work with women exiting prostitution. Formally called the Community Intervention Program (CIP), the “john school” is the first and only alternative treatment program for sex buyers in Milwaukee. Geraci said it is an important program because it addresses “the other side of the issue.” CIP works in partnership with the Community Prosecution Unit and the Sisters Project in MPD District 3, but any district can refer someone to participate.

Most participants are apprehended in sting operations involving an undercover police officer posing as a sex worker. At the time of arrest, first-time offenders who are deemed low-risk and eligible to participate are either offered a pre-charge diversion or are charged with soliciting a prostitute and then offered deferred prosecution if they enroll in CIP.

To successfully complete CIP, offenders need to sign a contract agreeing not to get in any trouble with the law throughout the six-month program. They also need to pay $300 to participate, attend all 10 accountability classes and complete eight hours of community service. If they comply, they walk away without a criminal charge on their record.

The classes address the effects of the clients’ behavior on themselves, their families, their communities and the sex workers. Participants also learn about the risks associated with their behavior and explore what healthy relationships look like.

Many participants begin the program unaware of the impact that prostitution has on the sex worker or the community at large, or its connection to human trafficking, according to Katie Karnold-Lynch, CIP program director.

“I’m always amazed by the growth and change that takes place with clients in the course of a CIP series,” she said.

Ladwig described the program as a “significant success,” especially in reducing the recidivism of sex buyers. Since it began in 2001, only one person who successfully completed the program was arrested for reoffending.

“When we get men into these programs, they tend to do very well,” Ladwig said.

Geraci said CIP helps the clients understand what’s underlying their behavior and encourages them to shift their attitude toward women in general.

Linn and World-Patterson both say that the CIP Program is an important step, but alone, it is not enough.

“In my opinion, there’s no way that one john school has the capacity to handle all those johns who are out there,” Linn said. “That’s one tool of many tools that should be used to tackle the problem.”

World-Patterson noted that more “dollars that will focus on the demand side” need to be allocated to a variety of initiatives in the city.

She said that it would ultimately take a culture shift to curb the demand for commercial sex. Though men and boys also have been trafficked, World-Patterson said the crime mostly has to do with how women are valued. Experts connect the treatment of women as commodities, such as through pornography, to the demand for commercial sex.

Outreach workers such as World-Patterson are beginning to raise awareness in young men about the role they can play in ending trafficking. World-Patterson said men should talk to each other about how they view and value women.

“We need to change the mindset,” she said. “Prevention is worth a pound of cure, and if we can dry up the demand side, we wouldn’t be looking at this multi-million dollar industry.”

You can find other stories about Milwaukee's central city at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, or NNS, is an online source for objective, professional multimedia reporting on issues in 18 central city Milwaukee communities.