For the past week, WUWM has been reporting on sex trafficking — what it is, who's affected, and how activists and elected officials are responding. Those involved with helping victims of sex trafficking say it's also important to know how to recognize if someone is being trafficked or is at-risk of falling prey to traffickers.
Eighteen-year-old Alyssa Rodriguez says she narrowly escaped being trafficked when she was underage. At the time, she says she was living on her own and was in risky situations, where people took advantage of her.
Rodriguez says things easily could have turned for the worse. "I became unaccompanied and homeless when my mother went to Chicago to be with her new boyfriend and my abusive stepfather kicked me out," she said while testifing at a legislative hearing in March. She was speaking in support of a bill that would allow youth who are unaccompanied, or not in the physical custody of a parent, to stay in shelter facilities.
"Between the ages of 16 and 17, I had to live with a gang member who was addicted to heroin, forced me to shoplift. I was sexually assaulted multiple times, groomed by a pedophile, and almost became a victim of human trafficking," she continued.
What Rodriguez went through when on her own is not uncommon among youth who are at risk of becoming trafficked, Ben Poller says. He's the special agent in charge of the Wisconsin Department of Justice's Human Trafficking Bureau.
"Many times, it’s the juveniles who are in need [who are at risk of being trafficked]," he says. "Many of the juvenile victims that we end up dealing with are ones that they really don’t have mom and dad on the scene, many of them are in foster care, and many times they really have nowhere to go. And so, traffickers will take advantage of that."
Sex trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel someone to have sex for money — or having a minor exchange sex for money even without force, fraud or coercion. So, traffickers often look for people who don't have a home or stability in their life.
But it's not just minors — or people with difficult home lives — who are at risk, Jarrett Luckett explains. He's executive director of Exploit No More, a local anti-trafficking organization.
"It also happens to adults, from all different walks of life," he says. "I know of victims who they were married, had a good job, they had a surgery and got addicted to pain pills. And they couldn’t get pain pills anymore, and so they started using other drugs. And they couldn’t afford their habit anymore. And, so their drug dealer became their sex trafficker."
And the Wisconsin Department of Justice has a website on how to determine whether youth are at-risk for trafficking.
As far as signs that someone is being trafficked, Special Agent Poller says you’ll likely see an adult — the trafficker — exerting control over the person who's being trafficked.
"It could be physical control," he says. "Even just walking in public, you’re going to see more of a mental control. If they’re asked a question, the trafficker may answer the question for them. The trafficker will also try to isolate them from the rest of the world, and so the trafficker may be holding on to their cell phone for them, their identification, currency."
Poller adds people being trafficked may not know the time of day and may be unaware of where they are.
“And a lot of these signs run directly next to signs of domestic abuse or domestic violence," says Emmy Myers, founder of Lacey’s Hope Project, an anti-trafficking organization. She says there’s a laundry list of signs that could mean someone is being trafficked for sex: The person could have a new crowd of friends, unexplained expensive gifts, and show signs of physical abuse or branding — with scars, tattoos or piercings.
“Just one of these signs isn’t necessarily going to mean sex trafficking, but it absolutely could,"says Myers.
Poller has advice for civilians who suspect someone they know is being trafficked: "When somebody sees something, they should try to contact the local police right off the bat, because they are boots on the ground, and they are the ones that have the 24/7 police force that can potentially try and do something right away if they recognize it as a dangerous situation."
He notes concerned citizens can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888, which has connections to local police.
And, Alyssa Rodriguez, who says she narrowly escaped being trafficked, also has advice for people who want to help a trafficking victim. She says it's important not to judge people who've been trafficked, they deserve support — not condemnation.
“The victims will most of the time blame themselves and say that there’s something that they could have done, and that it’s important to remind them that they are a victim," Rodriguez says.
The person who should be blamed is the trafficker, she says, who took advantage of someone who was vulnerable.