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‘There are people for sale here’: Madison authorities struggle to support victims of sex trafficking

  • 11 min to read

After Tiffany’s ex-boyfriend tried to strangle and drown her in a bathtub two years ago, the mother of four was forced to move into a Wisconsin Dells motel room.

In an attempt to find someone to adopt her pet pit bull, which was not allowed in the motel, Tiffany began communicating online with a man who would exploit her vulnerable position and become her trafficker.

Within seven months, Tiffany, who asked that her last name not be used, said she lost everything at the hands of Maurice Withers, who facilitated “dates” with paying customers, isolated Tiffany and physically and mentally abused her.

“They’re trying to strip you of everything to try and get complete control,” Tiffany said. “It’s their goal to take away your house, your car, your friends, your family, everything.”

While awareness and identification of sex trafficking has improved in the past two decades, Wisconsin law enforcement agencies, legal representatives, medical professionals and service providers are often left wondering how to best support victims who face a unique and daunting set of challenges.

Along with that recognition and the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 came a change in terminology. For example, the term “trafficking victim” should be used instead of child prostitute to reflect the lack of choice children have in selling sex.

Human trafficking is the recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting or obtaining a person for commercial sex through fraud, force or coercion. Myths surrounding trafficking are also prevalent, which can affect how the public and policymakers perceive the issue.

Using the term “pimp” to refer to an individual exploiting another can often glamourize traffickers, according to the Irina Project, a University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism group that monitors reporting on sex trafficking.

Law enforcement agencies and social services have started to distinguish the differences between prostitution and the more common situation where a trafficker is controlling and profiting from an individual.

On Nov. 20, U.S. District Judge William Conley sentenced Withers, 28, to 18 years in prison, three years more than the Congress-mandated minimum, with lifetime supervision to follow on nine counts of sex trafficking. Three of those involved underage victims.

“It’s clear the defendant chose vulnerable women at vulnerable times to move them into prostitution for his benefit,” Conley said.

Tiffany, 34, said Withers calculated how to take advantage of her vulnerabilities from day one.

“He built me up, and then he broke me down,” she said.

She said she wants to tell her story to let other girls and women know they have a choice and they can get out.

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TIFFANY

Tiffany, 34, said she views herself as more of a survivor than a victim of trafficking after completing therapy. She wants to tell her story to let others involved in trafficking know that they can get out.

‘It’s always here’

Withers’ trafficking case is one of two that have gone to trial in Wisconsin’s Western District, though others have been charged. Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Pfluger began prioritizing trafficking about two years ago at the request of then-U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil.

Conley could have sentenced Withers to life in prison under federal sentencing guidelines but chose not to in the hope that he will eventually understand his wrongdoings and prepare for a life after prison.

“I apologize for the influence I had over them. I regret the choices that led me here today,” Withers said at the sentencing.

As many service providers and law enforcement agencies grapple with how to address trafficking, some judges are seeing such cases for the first time.

“I think on the federal and state level, everyone needs to be educated, even the judges,” Pfluger said.

State Attorney General Brad Schimel told the Wisconsin State Journal in July 2016 that of 275 state investigations into sex trafficking since 2014, only 10 to 15 have been successfully prosecuted.

Pfluger said she originally bought into the misconceptions that sex trafficking only took place in big cities and involved women from foreign countries. She quickly learned that was not the case.

“(Trafficking) is so prevalent everywhere,” Pfluger said. “If you know what to look for, you will find it in every city in this country.”

That includes Madison.

In Madison, women and girls are advertised online through sites like Backpage whereas in larger cities they are more often seen “walking the track.” Madison Police Detective Roger Baker said at any given time, there is a “multitude” of online ads offering women for sale in the Madison area.

“We know that it’s here on any given day. There are people for sale here,” Baker said. “Some of them post numbers from out of state and different places, but it just seems like it’s always here.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, run through the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project, maintains one of the most extensive databases tracking human trafficking. This year, 4,460 human trafficking cases were reported nationally through June 30. The number of cases as reported by the project grew from 3,272 in 2012 to 7,621 in 2016.

This year in Wisconsin, the Polaris Project reported 47 cases of trafficking through June 30. That number increased from 27 in 2012 to 65 in 2016.

Data specific to Madison is difficult to track and trafficking cases are arduous to investigate because they involve writing complex search warrants for email, cell phone and website records. Victims are also hesitant to come forward. 

Still, Detective Maya Krajcinovic of the MPD said human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise next to the drug trade and is the “drug of choice” in Madison. She described trafficking as a business endeavor.

“You can drive in a car with a 14-year-old kid next you and sell that kid over and over,” Krajcinovic said. “She’s a renewable commodity where you can only sell that crack cocaine once and then you have to go buy more to sell more.”

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Madison Police detectives say there is a “multitude” of ads for Madison women and girls on websites like Backpage.

‘Mind control’

Since passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the global Palermo Protocol defined trafficking and set protections for victims in 2000, identifying human trafficking has increased.

But University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor Lara Gerassi said with the heightened awareness came an “everyone at risk” model, which does not recognize that certain communities are at increased risk and should be targeted for identification, prevention and intervention.

“We have this perception that trafficking can happen to everyone, which it can, but what we know is that there are certain populations that are at risk,” Gerassi said.

She said people of color and those living in poverty are more likely to be victims and survivors of trafficking. Also, she said more information is needed on what trafficking looks like in rural communities and Wisconsin’s Native American population.

Gerassi researches gender-based violence and human trafficking and is teaching the first class on trafficking within the university’s School of Social Work. Her work looks at ways to strengthen organizations that come into contact with people who are at risk or are being trafficked and addressing misconceptions.

A common myth is that trafficking always involves physically holding people against their will. Imagery of women in chains and tied up is widespread, but Gerassi said psychological and emotional abuse are more common.

“For a lot of folks, trafficking is still this modern day slavery,” Gerassi said. “I’m looking for somebody who’s kidnapped in a basement, which means if I’m at a gas station and I see a couple arguing, and I see a woman who is being encouraged to go and talk to some guy, it may not ring a bell or make me think, ‘Oh this may be a trafficking situation.’” 

In Tiffany’s case, Withers was a “Romeo pimp.” He first gained her trust by acting as a boyfriend might — taking her out to dinner and asking about her life.

“Trafficking is these guys that are coming in and they make you fall in love,” Tiffany said. “You fall in love with them, and then they beat you down, brainwash you and they manipulate you and then they traffic you.”

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John Bauman, Dane County Juvenile Court administrator, said one night on the run can elevate the risk of being trafficked. “I would have to say the majority of our girls that we see come through for intake have probably been taken advantage of."

Tiffany said Withers manipulated her through mental and physical abuse until he was controlling nearly every aspect of her life — who she could see, when she could use her phone, what music she could listen to, if and when she would eat.

To cope, Tiffany turned to alcohol but said she is lucky to have avoided drug addiction.

Withers kept her secluded, got her fired from dancing jobs and undermined friendships with those outside the trafficking world. Tiffany lost close friends during a  previous relationship, so she was already more isolated.

“It’s like you lose grasp of the real world,” Tiffany said. “He just had complete mind control. You couldn’t think for yourself. He thought for you. He spoke for you.”

She also said he slowly introduced her to the sex trafficking trade starting with nude massages before Withers pressured her to “upsell” and offer paying customers more. He intimidated Tiffany by pinning her into a corner, yelling into her face and degrading her self-worth, according to court documents. 

“You literally feel like you have nowhere to go. You have nothing. You’ve lost everything in the process,” Tiffany said. “Once you’re in, you feel like you have nothing.”

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Pfluger said trafficking is “prevalent” in every city, but there is a dearth of specialized services for victims.

Runaways at risk

Victims of sex trafficking can cross ethnic, racial, gender, age and economic lines. Vulnerable populations frequently targeted by traffickers include victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, runaways and homeless youth.

Situations in which individuals are exposed to trafficking vary, from a trafficker promising a job like dancing, to family members forcing an individual to sell sex. Traffickers can exploit victims by taking advantage of drug addictions, financial vulnerability, mental health issues and social situations.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimated in 2016 that one in six endangered runaways reported to them were likely victims of sex trafficking.

Youth missing from foster or group homes, residential care centers or court-ordered placements with relatives are “inherently” more at risk, Dane County Juvenile Court Administrator John Bauman said.

From Jan. 1 through Nov. 9, the juvenile court issued 264 apprehension requests — required when youth go missing from court-ordered placements or temporary custody orders — for 77 individuals between the ages of 10 and 17.

The MPD dealt with 342 cases of missing juveniles or runaways in 2017 through Nov. 20. Of those, 209 were unique individuals.

One night on the run can elevate the risk of being trafficked, Bauman said.

“I would have to say the majority of our girls that we see come through for intake have probably been taken advantage of,” Bauman said. “You have to stay somewhere and what do you do to have a place to stay?”

Tyler Schueffner, who works with high-risk youth as a street outreach program coordinator with Briarpatch Youth Services, said youth with low self-esteem are also at higher risk for trafficking. He said kids get connected to traffickers or “groomers” who use victims to recruit others on social media.

“The level of manipulation and how strong it is with young people cannot be understated,” Schueffner said.

Project Respect is the main advocacy and outreach group for trafficking victims in Madison.

Project Respect director Jan Miyasake said in a presentation to the Madison City Council this summer that young teenagers recruited into trafficking can become recruiters, protecting traffickers from being identified.

“It’s a tough dynamic, a sad dynamic, that we see girls — without being identified and directed into services — go from that 13-, 14-year-old girl who gets recruited and then maybe by 17, so she doesn’t have to turn the dates anymore, start recruiting the other girls,” Miyasake said.

This aspect also makes providing shelter to runaway youth through services like Briarpatch more difficult.

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“You have to be aware the system of manipulation is so strong and so twisted that as a service provider, you’re often compromising one kid’s safety,” Schueffner said.

Treating trafficking victims, particularly youth, is especially difficult because many do not see themselves as victims. Dr. Mollie Kane, a physician who works at the Dane County juvenile detention center, said some of her patients choose to traffick themselves.

Kane said the patients she sees “desperately” want to keep up their lifestyle — the money, the perceived security and the feeling that they’re being cared for or loved. If drugs are involved, and Kane said they typically are, those involved in trafficking are resistant to treatment.

Kane said at least she can treat patients for sexually transmitted infections, counsel them on birth control options and treat their injuries. She, along with other local service providers, are frustrated by the lack of services for trafficking victims.

“We don't have anything to offer. We have nothing,” Kane said. “We can send them to Los Angeles or Arizona for them to stay in a place they’ve never seen … or they can go to their pimp.”

Schueffner said, bluntly: “Traffickers do a better job of providing basic needs than service providers.”

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Madison Police Detectives Roger Baker, left, and Maya Krajcinovic said sex trafficking is rampant in Madison. Krajcinovic described it as the city’s “drug of choice.”

Identification, but then what?

If Kane had her way, she would have some homes for victims of trafficking in Wisconsin to stay where they could go to school and have access to health care. She also wants immediate access to mental health and substance abuse care.

“I feel like if someone is identified as a sex trafficking victim, they should jump to the front of the line for everything,” she said. “And they don’t, so we wait and we lose them.”

A 10-bed residential facility for girls who have been victims of sex trafficking was open for a short time earlier this year in Neillsville, about two hours north of Madison. The facility and program, called Transitions, was run by Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan through a state contract. It began accepting placements in February, but closed this summer due to a mutual agreement between the state Department of Children and Families and LSS.

“While we built a model that would provide girls who were victims of sex trafficking with the best chance to heal, we learned together that a small program like this was very hard to sustain,” LSS president & CEO Héctor Colón said in a statement.

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SCHUEFFNER

Tyler Schueffner, who works with high-risk youth as a street outreach program coordinator with Briarpatch Youth Services, said youth with low self-esteem are also at higher risk for trafficking.

Joy Ippolito, the state’s anti-human trafficking coordinator, said DCF has been evaluating options to support a new program to serve trafficking victims, including issuing a request for proposals to open a new facility in addition to anti-human trafficking regional hubs.

These hubs are meant to coordinate and promote community-based services in seven regions throughout Wisconsin. The Outagamie County Department of Health and Human Services was awarded a contract for an anti-human trafficking regional hub pilot program. 

In 2012, the state created the Wisconsin Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force co-chaired by DCF Secretary Eloise Anderson and Attorney General Brad Schimel.

The task force, which concludes in December, developed a statewide indicator and response guide to identify potential trafficking cases and a training curriculum for professionals who work with youth. Ippolito said DCF will launch an Anti-Human Trafficking Advisory Council in early 2018. 

Madison does not have a formal task force on trafficking, although Miyasake facilitates a community coordinated response team meeting every other month on trafficking. Krajcinovic, the MPD detective, described working with a variety of partners in law enforcement, government and social service agencies to connect victims to resources.

The joint Madison and Dane County health department does not have staff dedicated to trafficking issues. However, the department’s community health staff receives regular training on how to identify potential indicators of trafficking and how to work with victims.

Recent changes at the federal level required all states to adapt their laws to consider child sex trafficking a form of child abuse. That law change, which went into effect May 29, also required Child Protective Services to investigate reports when an accused abuser is not the victim’s caregiver.

Several pending state bills would protect child victims and increase penalties for those paying for sex. These bills would:

•   Remove the ability of law enforcement to charge minors with prostitution. Under current law, youth under 18 may be prosecuted for committing an act of prostitution, which is a misdemeanor.

•   Increase the penalty for paying to have sex with a child to a felony.

•   Increase the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony for someone who has been convicted of patronizing an adult prostitute three times.

•   Create a $5,000 surcharge imposed on people who are convicted of patronizing or soliciting prostitutes, pandering or keeping a place of prostitution. Under this bill, the funding collected would be used for treatment and services for sex trafficking victims and for criminal investigations and law enforcement relating to internet crimes against children.

•   Require driver education courses to provide instruction in how to recognize and prevent human trafficking.

•   Make it a crime to solicit a sexually explicit photograph, recording or other representation from a minor.

Pfluger, the federal prosecutor, emphasized a need for specialized services for trafficking victims. While an individual recovering from trafficking may share similarities with victims of domestic violence, they are different.

“These victims often have PTSD, they have been subject to brutality, to rape,” Pfluger said, “a host of problems that require specific services, not just a general counselor or drug treatment.”

After completing trauma therapy, Tiffany is now starting to view herself more as a survivor of trafficking and less like a victim. She said she wants to take on a greater advocacy role, supporting women and girls who are still caught up in the world of trafficking.

But of the ten known women and children Withers exploited, Tiffany said only she and one other victim are doing well.

“A lot of women don’t get out of the life,” Tiffany said.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.