Human Trafficking

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a form of slavery. Human trafficking is wrongly using other people, sometimes for sexual exploitation and sometimes for labor.  Often vulnerable young people are exploited through human trafficking and it happens to youth with disabilities too.  Many times, youth who are being trafficked don’t know that they are being trafficked or that they are victims.

Why should foster parents know about human trafficking?

Children in foster care are more likely to be trafficked because of their background of abuse and neglect. There are many known risk factors that place youth at higher risk of being trafficked. The strongest risk factors are previous physical and sexual abuse, running away, and sexual identity issues.

Signs of Human Trafficking

  • A person who appears to be disconnected from their family, friends or community
  • A child who has stopped attending school
  • A child with dramatic changes in behavior or seeming confused or disoriented, timid or fearful
  • A child engaged in sex acts
  • A child who seems to be with another person who they treat as their “boss” or someone who seems to be in control of where they go or who they talk to.
  • A person who does not seem to have their own possessions or seems not to have a stable living situation or does not have freedom to go where they want or live where they want.

The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families launched a campaign to address the child sex trafficking in the state by increasing public awareness of the signs, risk factors, and reporting mechanisms. Go to to learn more about youth sex trafficking and what you can do to prevent it.

What should I do if I suspect a child is being trafficked?

If you think someone you know is being trafficked, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or report it to Child Protective Services.

by Maggie Berndt

When you hear the term “Sex Trafficking,” what comes to mind? Girls in countries far away from Milwaukee being forced to perform sexual acts for the monetary benefit of a pimp? Or maybe you know that sex trafficking is happening in this country as well, so then you imagine pimps bringing young girls over from Africa or South America to work the streets of L.A. or Las Vegas.

Would you believe it if I told you sex trafficking was also happening right here in Milwaukee involving youth who are Milwaukee born and bred? Or that youth in foster care and runaways are at a higher risk of being trafficked? And that boys are just as much at risk as girls?

Let’s start by dispelling a few myths about trafficking.

Myth: A person has to be taken to a different city, state or country in order for it to count as trafficking.

Reality: The legal definition of trafficking has nothing to do with transportation. A young person can be trafficked out of his or her own home.

Myth: It only happens in other nations or involves foreign victims.

Reality: Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States involving 100,000 – 300,000 U.S. children a year in addition to adults and foreign victims. Accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, because most research is focused on minors.

Myth: Most kids are kidnapped off the street and forced to work for a stranger.

Reality: While unfortunately some kids are kidnapped, it is far more common that the victim knows his or her trafficker. Sometimes a child is first pimped out by a parent or other relative, or a child and parent are pimped out together. Other times victims think of their pimp as a boyfriend and refer to him as such. If you’re hearing from a 14 year old about a 30 year old boyfriend, think twice.

Myth: If a person isn’t getting paid for sex, it’s not a crime.

Reality: Pay, as well as initial consent, is irrelevant if the victim is under 18. If someone under 18 is involved in a commercial sex act, it’s considered trafficking. It doesn’t matter if the youth never sees any of the money. For victims over 18, proof that a sex act is performed by force, fraud, or coercion constitutes trafficking and again the victim does not have to see any of the money.

Myth: Victims are going to identify themselves and want help leaving their pimp.

Reality: Oftentimes victims don’t immediately seek help, or even identify as victims for a number of reasons. They have experienced abuse their whole lives and trafficking is not that different. In some instances they may blame themselves for the things they have done. Other times a pimp has a youth convinced either that this is only a short-term solution until the two of them can afford a house together or that the youth is worthless and doesn’t deserve anything better than “the life.” This is why, if you work closely with youth, it is important to not make snap judgments and have patience as it takes time to build trust.

Sex trafficking can carry many images and connotations, and sometimes “sex trafficking” isn’t an appropriate term to describe a situation, such as having a “sugar daddy” (an older male who gives fancy gifts in exchange for sex) or working a supporting role for a pimp or prostitute – such as recruiting or babysitting while other girls work – but never actually having sex. For this series, we use the term sex trade to include all of these circumstances and cover the bases that the term “trafficking” does not.

While law enforcement officers are concerned with trafficking and the sexual assault of minors, they shouldn’t be the only ones fighting this issue. People who work with youth need to be concerned about any impact the sex trade is having on youth. Don’t just leave it to law enforcement to fix this problem. We can make a difference.

It is also important to be aware of the youth at a higher risk of involvement in the sex trade. This includes youth in foster care, homeless and/or unemployed youth, LGBTQ youth, and youth of color.

A youth’s involvement with the sex trade does not always start or end with sex trafficking. There is a continuum where one thing can lead to another.   What starts off as an innocent night of dancing, can lead to years of being abused and pimped as a prostitute against a young girl’s will. (Watch this short video: Making of a Girl)

There are a number of factors that push and pull a youth into the sex trade.  These factors include money, survival, the influence of family or friends, or a search for love and attention. More details are available here.

It is very important for anyone working with youth to be aware of this continuum. It helps so we can intervene early or in situations that don’t technically fall under the jurisdiction of law enforcement.

The first step is to arm yourself with knowledge. In the next part of this series – we sit down with Claudine O’Leary, Milwaukee’s resident expert on working with youth impacted by the sex trade. She’ll offer her advice on how we can help our youth before it’s too late.

by Maggie Berndt

What is it like to be a teen without a stable home?  Homeless teens, teens in foster care and “couch-surfing” teens are at greater risk of being exploited than other teens.

How do we help keep teens safe?

A good place to start is for caring adults to educate themselves about the risks faced by teens and learn how to help.  To shed some light on this vital topic, I sat down with Claudine O’Leary.

A good place to start is for caring adults to educate themselves about the risks faced by teens and learn how to help.  To shed some light on this vital topic, I sat down with Claudine O’Leary.

Claudine O’Leary is Milwaukee’s resident expert on working with youth impacted by the sex trade. Ms. O’Leary is originally from Chicago, where she co-founded the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, a safe, respectful, free-of-judgment space for girls and young women in the sex trade to recognize their goals, dreams and desires. Claudine is currently a community leader and educator.  She works with youth and educates adults about how to effectively and respectfully support youth impacted by the sex trade.

Kids Matter: What are some tips you have for recognizing youth involved with the sex trade?

Claudine O’Leary: I think the best way to know if youth are involved in trading sex for money or survival is to ask. This can be hard for adults who feel uncomfortable talking about sex or exploitation. But caring adults need to talk about it first to let youth know we are nonjudgmental and ready to listen.

You can ask something really basic like “has anyone offered you money for sexual stuff like taking sexual pictures or being touched?” or “many youth in difficult situations trade sex or sexual stuff for survival needs or money, has that been your experience?” After asking, remember to listen! Youth say all the time that no one asked and really listened to them. I’d like us to change that.

Kids Matter: Can you give us more specifics about what the term “sex trade” covers?

Claudine O’Leary: I’m using the term sex trade to cover a whole range of ways that youth can be involved in sexual exchanges for money or resources. Some of those ways include:

Sex for gifts – For some youth the sex trade means dating older partners who pay for cell phones, new outfits or getting your hair done. Some people call it having a sugar daddy or sugar mommy.

Survival sex – For some youth, being very poor, kicked out of the house, running away, becoming homeless when the whole family loses housing and or being in unstable housing situations means being approached by adults who offer to “help” you for a price. At times the adult is open about it. But sometimes a teen doesn’t realize until later that something sexual (like nude photos, being touched, watched or other sexual acts) will be required in exchange for food, a ride, a place to sleep for the night. “You’re hungry? Come on over to my house for dinner.”  “Oh, you need a place to stay? I’ll help you out. But I failed to mention that I only have one bed. I hope you don’t mind.”

Commercial sex industry – Stripping/exotic dancing, porn through videos, photos and webcams and other parts of the legal sex industry are only legal of course when everyone is 18 or over. But some of us work with youth who have aged out of foster care or are struggling as young adults in the legal sex industry.

Underground sex trade – This covers all the ways that youth are involved in sex or sexual activities for money on the street, in people’s homes, in hotel rooms and all over. Sometimes the youth keeps the money; sometimes the youth never sees any of the money as a pimp would take it all.

Support roles – The sex trade is much bigger than people think. Even teens get involved as drivers, security, taking calls from men who want to pay for sex or watching kids while other youth are having sex for money. From these supporting roles they witness another young person coming back with large amounts of cash. They can begin to feel like a part of a community or family. This is connected to recruiting because it can lower people’s resistance to the idea or sometimes youth are set up to believe they are needed to help “just this once” to have sex for money. A youth can be at a different spot on the continuum at different times in his or her life. For example, perhaps a youth was pimped out by her parents at age 6, and now that she’s older and of no use to them, she has moved on to a sugar daddy (an older man who takes care of her financially in exchange for sex) – because that’s the only life she knows. This is why social service workers who work with youth are so important. The police are not always the answer, having a sugar daddy is not technically illegal if a youth is 18.

Even if all of the pimps are arrested, the sex trade would still exist. And we cannot blame the youth. We created this system of the sex trade. It is the result of the combined efforts of a number of failing systems which will take years to undo.

Kids Matter: What is currently being done about this, and what sort of rights do the youth involved in the sex trade have?

Claudine O’Leary: It depends on who you ask. I think for many youth workers and most youth involved in the sex trade, it doesn’t seem like enough is being done. We don’t have the resources for youth to offer as alternative options. Many adults are very judgmental and blame youth for their own exploitation. And the serious systemic inequalities that fuel the sex trade aren’t really being addressed. For example, Milwaukee’s youth unemployment is very high but there’s always someone ready to give you money if you’re willing to take your clothes off.

However we are seeing more interest and concern among both system and community-based partners. Local law enforcement are investigating the organized trafficking networks and making many arrests. People in Milwaukee and across the state are convening to determine what we can do better. We have a new statewide human trafficking protocol that outlines the legal definition of trafficking which includes all minors involved in commercial sex and offers ideas on a better community response.

I’m not sure we have a lot of agreement as a community about what rights youth impacted by the sex trade have. In some ways people think youth involved in trading sex should be treated as a victim of a crime, with everything that might mean. But for many youth, that doesn’t really deal with core issues of needing a safe place to live, meaningful educational opportunities, living wage jobs, and welcoming communities and support.

But sometimes rights we have are the ones we claim for ourselves. So I’d say youth have the right to be involved in the process of figuring out our community response. Not only do we need to listen to youth, we need to make sure they are involved in making change.

Kids Matter: So what can we do?

Claudine O’Leary: I think we need to transform how we respond to the reality of teen involvement in the sex trade. That means making telling an adult a more positive experience for youth, instead of the overwhelmingly negative experience that many youth report right now. This is partly about creating more options so we can offer real alternatives when youth open up. Sometimes it’s just being nonjudgmental and offering your support. Instead of saying “I can’t believe you did that,” youth need to hear “I’m so glad you told me. Let’s work on some options together.”

Kids Matter: Sex is never an easy issue to discuss with youth. Do you have any tips?

Claudine O’Leary: The trick is to look for opportunities to bring up the topic of the sex trade and have a dialog.

You can use stories that are in the news, or popular movies or songs that relate as an opener. “Hey did you hear about this story? Do you think something like that could happen at your school?” Ask questions often. Even if youth don’t open up initially, find ways to keep asking. It shows you’re patient, and can wait for the right time. Sometimes teens are very open and honest, but it’s the adults who shut down the conversation. We have to become more comfortable talking about the topic of sex with youth.

By now you may be thinking of missed opportunities you’ve encountered with youth, or replaying conversations thinking “what should I have said differently?” If you have the chance you can try again. Or just keep it in mind for the future.

Kids Matter: What do you do when a youth you’re working with discloses that she or he is impacted by the sex trade?

Claudine O’Leary: Many youth workers wonder what to do beyond making any required report. Some youth workers are concerned that many youth don’t want to talk about alternatives right away or appear uninterested in getting help. But I think if adults focused on three points they’d have much more success in connecting with youth involved in trading sex.

Think of it this way: S.O.S. Safety. Options. Support.

Safety – Ask the young person what they do to stay safe. Every youth involved in the sex trade thinks about safety and has taken important steps to keep as safe as possible. Listen to the strategies youth have developed, express your support for what they’ve done so far to take care of themselves and offer some additional ideas from safety planning that you would do for anyone.

Options -Offer options and alternatives to meet the needs youth have. Youth have said they were told to stop but then no one offered any alternatives or options to do something different. If you don’t know of good options, offer to look into possibilities together with the youth.

Support – Sometimes this just means listening. Your first instinct might be to try to fix everything. But the best support can be listening without judgment. Instead of promising it will all work out, which you can’t guarantee, promise you will be there to support them along the way.

By starting with safety, options and support, you can build a strong foundation for connecting with a youth impacted by the sex trade. Sadly getting involved is a lot easier than getting out. But you can be a nonjudgmental ally to youth in their journey.

Finally, make sure you have support for yourself after the conversation. Listening to a young person talk about the sex trade can be difficult and bring up a lot of emotions. Find a healthy way to express yourself and get support too.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice

The Polaris Project 

PACT (Protect All Children from Trafficking)

US Department of State Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons 

Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault

Rethink Resources: Options, Not Judgments– for youth impacted by the sex trade

To Report a Trafficking Tip: 1-888-3737-888 or online

**If you are a youth involved in the sex trade in need of emergency shelter, please go to:

Walkers Point – 732 S 21st Street, Milwaukee, WI for 11-17 year olds
24 hour crisis hotline: 414-647-8200
Pathfinders Youth Shelter – 1416 E Kane Place, Milwaukee, WI for 11-17 year olds
Pathfinders Drop-In Center – 4200 N Holton Street, Suite 400 – day use for 11-25 year olds
24 hour hotline for issues of youth sexual violence: 414-271-9523

Note: Foster youth should call a hotline or visit the Pathfinders Drop-In Center to request assistance. Due to funding restrictions, foster youth may face limitations on stays in emergency shelter. Other options may be available.

This material may be freely reproduced and distributed. However, when doing so, please credit Kids Matter Inc.