Wisconsin Sex Trafficking Cases Hard to Crack

In November, The (Appleton, Wis.) Post-Crescent found that while 40% of women arrested for sex work faced criminal charges, 99% of men arrested for patronizing prostitutes were released unscathed. In line with the report, Appleton and Grand Chute, Wis., police and county prosecutors said they were adjusting policies to take a harder stance on johns, while offering more options for women potentially trapped in the world of sex trafficking.

The Oshkosh Police Department enlisted Nicole Tynan, an anti-trafficking advocate with Reach Counseling Services to assist with potential sex trafficking victims who are arrested for various offenses. The partnership is just one example of how law enforcement officials have spent the last year strengthening prevention efforts for trafficking in the Fox Valley, Tynan said.

The Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance reports that trafficking has been documented in more than half of all Wisconsin counties, in both rural and urban areas. To date, more than 200 victims have been identified. Since 2000, about one in six victims reported in Wisconsin was a minor. “I don’t know if we’re seeing more reports of trafficking because it’s happening more or just that we’re more aware of it,” said Marathon County Deputy District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon, who prosecutes the bulk of sex crimes in the county. “I just know it’s happening more than we can even handle.”

Prosecuting cases is no easy task. The fine line between willing prostitute and trafficking victim can be difficult to define. Popular images of human trafficking include people held under lock and key. More commonly, Wetzsteon said, traffickers use more subtle means to control their victims, such as psychological coercion and threats of violence. Often, sex-traffickers target vulnerable people with histories of abuse. They use violence, threats, false promises and other forms of control to keep victims firmly entrenched in the sex industry. Children are frequent targets.

Still, few suspects in Marathon County accused in prostitution-related crimes have been charged with felony trafficking — in part because alternate charges are easier to prosecute, Wetzsteon said. Proving trafficking is difficult because state law puts the burden on victims, who have to prove the trafficking was done without their consent. That makes coming forward even more difficult for victims, who often fear they might be prosecuted. Determining jurisdiction also can be complicated in human trafficking cases since victims frequently are moved across state lines.

“There is one key difference in child trafficking cases,” Wetzsteon said. “When an adult is involved, we have to prove they were coerced or forced into the act. When children are involved, that’s not even a question.”

Learn more at Shereen Siewert’s USA Today article: Sex-trafficking cases hard to crack in Wisconsin.


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