The average age of a child first forced into the sex slave trade in the U.S. is 13, according to the state Department of Justice. And some children are just infants or toddlers when they are first exploited by sex traffickers.
“When I think of (this happening to) an infant or toddler, it is not just disgusting, it’s the worst form of torture I can imagine,” Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said. “It makes me angry.”
In the coming year, Van Hollen hopes to crack down on sex trafficking of children by hiring special agents and analysts to investigate these crimes and work with lawmakers to draft human trafficking-related legislation, and by holding more training for law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim and witness coordinators.
Van Hollen asked for more than $900,000 as part of his two-year budget request for the state Department of Justice, which was submitted to Gov. Scott Walker in September. That money would be used to hire five full-time employees, including three special agents and two criminal analysts, who would specifically work to fight child sex trafficking.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor’s office is reviewing Van Hollen’s budget request.
Dana Brueck, spokeswoman for Van Hollen, said the DOJ has no statistics to illustrate the scope of the problem in
Wisconsin but said “it would be naive to conclude that there wasn’t trafficking happening in Wisconsin.” She said the crime takes place throughout the state.
Wisconsin already has an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which has been administered through the state Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation since it was created in 1999. So far, 181 local law enforcement agencies have become part of the task force.
But the task force needs to augment its current work to prevent, investigate and prosecute child sex trafficking, according to the DOJ’s budget request.
“Right now we have people working on it, but it’s taking them away from child pornography cases,” Van Hollen said in an interview.
He said the additional staff members would help the DOJ be more aggressive in going after child traffickers, adding the analysts would assist in investigating and prosecuting cases by tracking things like Internet usage, hotel rentals, texts and cellphone usage.
Van Hollen said he also hopes to raise awareness of the problem.
He said some people mistakenly believe these children are “bad kids,” or they are being trafficked “of their own choice,” pointing out that they are too young to consent.
“This is not something they’re doing willingly,” he said. “These children are being exploited.”
Van Hollen, who will become president of the National Association of Attorneys General next summer, will in the fall host a summit where he plans to highlight child trafficking and other topics.
“What I appreciate from the attorney general was that he said human trafficking was going to be a priority and he has followed it up,” said JoAnn Gruber-Hagen, the chairwoman of SlaveFree Madison, a coalition that works to raise awareness of trafficking and efforts to combat it.
A local group, the Dane County Coordinated Community Response to the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, is also working to bring together law enforcement, prosecutors, schools, and service providers to combat trafficking of children, she said.
“It’s a very hidden crime,” Gruber-Hagen said. “It isn’t easy to investigate.”
It is estimated that as many as 27 million women, children and men around the world are victims of human trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Claudine O’Leary, a Milwaukee-based consultant who works with about a dozen agencies to combat trafficking said “there’s quite a long way to go” in changing perceptions of young people being trafficked and raising awareness of the problem.
She said an additional $912,000 for the DOJ will likely help law enforcement efforts, but she would like to see more money spent in other areas that could help young people being exploited by traffickers.
“I’d like to see an equal amount of money put toward their resource needs, like housing, jobs, supportive services, group support and individual support,” O’Leary said.