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Katie Ryan of Turningpoint

Human trafficking is rearing its ugly head in western Wisconsin

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Human trafficking is rearing its ugly head in western Wisconsin
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive 54022

Not that it’s a big problem in St. Croix and Pierce counties, but the fact that human trafficking exists has prompted River Falls-based Turningpoint to address the issue and offer services locally.


Turningpoint for victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence is most known for assisting victims of domestic violence. It is now also working in the area of sexual assault and child abuse. There are only a few cases of vulnerable young people from this area being led to the evils of human trafficking and prostitution, but it is a growing concern and problem.

Katie Ryan is the organization’s client service coordinator and sexual assault services coordinator. She spoke about human trafficking to members of the Hudson Thursday Noon Rotary Club last week.

“Human trafficking is happening in our area,” Ryan said.

Although the numbers are small, she said there were seven to 10 cases involving local young people in the past year.

She told of one case where a young girl went with an apparent “friend” to supposedly pick up a vehicle. Instead, the young girl ended up in a house in St. Paul where her “indoctrination” began.

“The pimps made a mistake,” Ryan said. “They forgot to take her cell phone. Before the process got too far along, she was able to call the police from a bathroom.”

Ryan said the people who are at the highest risk to be trafficked are adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse and have run away from home four or more times.

“The age of the victims starts at 12, 13 and 14,” Ryan said. “Victims of trafficking are tricked or coerced into this lifestyle by people manipulating their potential victims’ vulnerabilities using feelings of love and affection, force, money, and other false promises.”

She said there are well-established control methods that include the breakdown process, seasoning the victim, getting them to feel that they are the lowest of the lows and eventually achieving complete control. Tactics include intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, blame, sexual abuse and economic abuse.

The difficult part of the problem is that the victim often fails to realize that they are a victim.

“The pimps go after the down and out,” she said. “They are first exposed to a significant level of trauma; they are forced into a lifestyle, they are isolated and moved around a lot. Often drugs are involved.

“Soon the victim develops a belief that no one cares to help them. Eventually the lifestyle becomes normal -- the prostitution, and everything else, become a part of everyday life for them.

“The victims develop resiliency strategies just get through the day. Eventually they don’t identify themselves as victims, it’s their everyday life.”

Ryan said she has worked with young women who even deny that they are victims.

“We have to make that call on their behalf sometimes,” she said.

Once a young girl is convinced that this is her life, a pimp uses websites, social networks, phone hotlines, ads in newspapers or magazines, in brothels, massage parlors, or on street tracks in cities to help “his” girls reach quotas.

“We live in a technology transformed age,” Ryan said. “There are many ways for pimps to promote their “product” and many ways for johns to find what they are looking for.

“Online a person can order a victim like ordering a pizza,” Ryan said.

As far as the victims go, they eventually want out.

“Even with the altered mindset, most people forced into prostitution do not stay by choice,” Ryan said. “They are beaten, starved, sleep deprived, forced to use drugs and physically and sexually assaulted daily.”

St. Croix and Pierce counties are considered prime targets to recruit prostitutes because of their proximity to the Twin Cities.

Ryan said often the young ladies are “worn out” by the age of 20 and if they don’t escape on their own, they are sent packing by the pimps.

“They often become the strongest advocates to help young girls stay out of the business,” Ryan said.

In addition to helping victims locally, Turningpoint also helps prostitutes who decide to get out of the business. Victims call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which notifies Turningpoint.

“We’ve gotten calls from prostitutes who are at a truck stop or motel in the area and want to get away,” Ryan said. The agency helps to rescue the individual and sometimes it can be as simple as buying a bus ticket to get the victim to a safe location.

Human trafficking can also involve other forms of forced labor, like housekeepers or restaurants, but prostitution is the major issue.

--National issue

Turningpoint is associated with a national organization going by the name of Polaris Project.

Ryan was trained by the organization.

Polaris calls Human trafficking “a form of modern-day slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others.”

As defined under U.S. federal law, victims of human trafficking include children involved in the sex trade, adults age 18 or over who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts, and anyone forced into different forms of "labor or services," such as domestic workers held in a home, or farm-workers forced to labor against their will.

Numerous people in the field have summed up the concept of human trafficking as "compelled service." Polaris says every year, human traffickers generate billions of dollars in profits by victimizing millions of people around the world, and in the United States.

Human trafficking is considered to be one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world.

Polaris estimates that 100,000 children enter the sex trade in the United States each year.

Ryan said there are a few signs to watch for in regard to human trafficking. Among them are individuals who lack freedom, have few personal possessions, are in poor physical or mental health, avoid eye contact, lack knowledge of the community in which they live, are not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport) and have someone hovering over them at all times.

Ryan told the story about a couple in a liquor store. When asked for identifications, the man had the IDs for both people.

Polaris operates a national hotline. Any referrals to Polaris from western Wisconsin are sent to Turningpoint. The organization is the referral site for northwest Wisconsin.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) -- operated by Polaris -- is a national, toll-free hotline, available to answer calls and texts from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year. Call (888) 373-7888 or text BeFree (233733).

Last year the NHTRC received 35,889 contacts from across the country – 222 came from Wisconsin. Not all calls are related to Human Trafficking, but the number appears to be growing.

The NHTRC number can be used to report a tip; connect with anti-trafficking services in the area; or, request training and technical assistance, general information or specific anti-trafficking resources.

Doug Stohlberg
Doug Stohlberg has been part of the Hudson Star-Observer since 1973 and has been editor since 1987. He worked at the New Richmond News from 1971 to 1973. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.
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