Special Assignment: Human Trafficking in Wisconsin

By: Dana Brueck with Chief Photojournalist Curt Lenz Email
By: Dana Brueck with Chief Photojournalist Curt Lenz Email

UPDATED Wednesday, May 6, 2009 --- 11:40 a.m.

Press Release:

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today announced the award of over $2 million in grants to state and local organizations to identify and help victims of human trafficking.

The funds are part of the Rescue & Restore Victims of Human Trafficking Regional Program, whose purpose is to enhance anti-trafficking efforts in the U.S. by building regional capacity for the identification and service of victims.

The grantees are responsible for maintaining an anti-human trafficking coalition in their region, conducting public awareness activities and providing training and technical assistance on human trafficking issues to local organizations.

"Human trafficking is an outrage that society cannot tolerate," said Acting Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, Curtis L. Coy. "The funds we award today will boost our ongoing efforts to find these often-hidden victims and get them the services they need to rebuild their lives."

Under the Rescue and Restore program, each grantee must sub-award at least 60 percent of its funds to local organizations that identify and work with victims of human trafficking, thus building the capacity of such groups to carry out their mission and expanding the network of care for trafficking survivors.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 designated HHS as the agency responsible for helping victims of human trafficking become eligible for federally funded benefits and services.

As part of this effort, HHS initiated the Rescue & Restore Victims of Human Trafficking campaign, a multi-faceted effort to address this issue.

For more information please visit: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/trafficking/index.html

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Posted Tuesday, November 11, 2008 --- 10:00 p.m.

It's been called modern day slavery -- human trafficking. Victims' advocates say it's happening across Wisconsin -- "in plain sight."

Last year, the state began a survey -- to identify the level of human trafficking here. More than 200 cases of victims were identified. But experts believe that's likely a low number for this fast growing industry.

"I can guarantee you in grocery stores all over this state and in some hotels, there are places where human beings are trapped by others," Carmen Pitre says.

Nataliya knows the feeling.

"I was in the house like a prison," Nataliya says.

She was working as a travel agent in her homeland of Ukraine when she met an American man.

"I was very happy to have him in my life because I lived alone with my son," she says, "We could talk on the phone every day."

Eventually the couple decided to live together in the Milwaukee area.

"I was so excited to go to the U.S. because it was, a great opportunity to be in a family ... to have a new family ... to have a husband ... and good father for my son."

Within three weeks of her arrival on American soil, Nataliya says the man proposed.

"He prepare everything. It was beautiful wedding... there in the church with his family."

Then, she says, within days everything changed.

"After one week, he asked me to pay him."

"I told him I have just money to buy a car here... because I couldn't drive, do anything without car."

"He was so angry... and he wasn't like he was before with me... "

Her experience is a familiar one to advocates like Carmen Pitre.

"The face of human trafficking will look different in different communities," Pitre says.

Pitre is executive director of the Task Force on Family Violence -- an agency which provides support to victims of trafficking.

"Today, you can buy a human being for 200-dollars in any major city in the world."

The U.S. State Department estimates as many as 800-thousand people are trafficked every year worldwide for the purposes of labor or sexual exploitation.

"They're being brought here and forced to pay off their debt by the coyote or by the person who made it possible for them to come."

Wisconsin's survey of hundreds of agencies shows trafficking cases in urban and rural areas.

"We've come to learn that cases of trafficking are all around us in plain sight," Pitre says.

...From Milwaukee to Dane County and beyond, including Wisconsin Dells. One response -- from the Dells -- included in the 2007 survey inquires whether several people who became victims of their employers and of abuse fall under the definition of trafficking.

"The Dells I think is an area we need to be concerned about because we do see an influx of international people coming into that area. I'm not saying all businesses in the Dells, but we have to have a critical eye."

Wisconsin's most high profile human trafficking case comes from Brookfield. In 2006, two doctors were convicted in federal court of keeping a Philippine woman as a domestic servant for almost 20 years.
"You buy a product, and you use it once, but with a human being, you can use it, you know, 3,4, 50 times."

But Pitre says people's eyes also should be open to domestic trafficking.

Last month, an undercover sting in more than 2-dozen cities across the U-S resulted in the rescue of nearly 50 children -- all of them commodities in a booming sex trade.

"What concerns me is the demand for these human beings."

A recent undercover special by MSNBC highlights how trafficking affects minors.

"Not every child that's designated as a runway ... is a runaway child."

10 of the children rescued in the FBI's undercover sting had been listed as missing. Pitre says people need to connect the dots between pornography, organized crime and prostitution -- and human trafficking.

"Some people want to say prostitution is just about women who are choosing to sell themselves for sex because that's their chosen career. I've never met a woman who's been doing that that was very happy about it."

Today, Nataliya is an American citizen. She works as a Russian-speaking advocate for women like Svetlana.

"He changed maybe a few weeks after our marriage," Svetlana says.

Svetlana came with her daughter to the U.S. under circumstances similar to Nataliya's. She initially blamed herself.

"Maybe I'm bad wife."

The two women take part in a support group...spreading hope to others. Pitre hopes their stories spread awareness.

"There are moments where we see these human beings where we don't ask ourselves, 'Where is the demand for this? How is this happening," Pitre says.

The survey was done, in part, to educate the public and law enforcement to better recognize the signs of trafficking. It is a federal offense, but earlier this year, a trafficking law was enacted in Wisconsin. Vice president-elect Senator Joe Biden also introduced a bill this year to expand anti-trafficking efforts.

You can watch a clip of the MSNBC special undercover investigation at the web address below:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27098993/


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