Wisconsin ranks third in the nation in sex trafficking cases. Milwaukee is a big hub, being on a straight line from Chicago to Minneapolis via freeways, with several vulnerable cities along the way.
You probably didn’t know that. And SaintA is working hard to spread more information about it and to change community perceptions. But, more importantly, the organization has a specialized unit within Child and Family Wellbeing to work with youth who have been, or are at risk for being, involved in sex trafficking.
HART Case Management Training
The Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team (HART), which is about a year old, is supervised by Christina Hauritz, who says HART case managers undergo specialized training to learn how to:
- Identify signs a youth may have been sex trafficked, or is currently being trafficked
- Use screening tools to assess a youth’s involvement in sex trafficking and understand related impact
- Build strong relationships with youth by setting boundaries and establishing trust
- Use technology and social media to identify what makes youth susceptible to traffickers
- Collaborate with local and national resources to protect youth and educate the public
HART works in cooperation with several community partners including, among others, the Sensitive Crimes division of the Milwaukee Police Department and the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee.
SaintA Program Director, Lisa Vega, said youth who have been involved in child welfare are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked. “Our youth have a history of abuse or neglect and have likely experienced broken trust with parents or caregivers,” she says. “They may feel unstable with their housing and relationship needs, two of the most important pillars of overall health and stability.”
Instability Leads to Vulnerability
Indeed youth in child welfare are at higher risk for running away and becoming homeless. In fact, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that of the nearly 24,000 missing kids in 2018, 88 percent had been in child welfare when they went missing, and one in seven of those became victims of trafficking.
These youth may yearn for protective or family-like connections and sex traffickers often play to those vulnerabilities, showering youth with money, gifts, and shelter.
To complicate things further, most young people won’t acknowledge if they are being trafficked and many don’t consider themselves victims at all.
Gentle Yet Persistent Approach
“Our youth need us to be supportive and offer a listening ear,” Christina said. “They don’t need us to talk at them or tell them what they are doing is wrong.” she said.
This is where trust building and boundary setting are crucial. “If I ask them, ‘What do you want me to know about you?’ or I say, ‘I know something happened to you,’ they will often just reply with, ‘Read my file!’” Christina explained. “So, we have to start with rapport and we have to be patient.”
It’s not uncommon for youth to leave their sex trafficker for a day or two only to return to the promise of clothes, food, shelter and most of all, attention. It’s up to the SaintA HART team to give these young people alternatives and as many second chances as they need.
Lisa says the gentle yet persistent approach seems to be working. When trafficked youth get into trouble or difficult situations, they do tend to reach out to their case manager and ask to be picked up. “That wasn’t happening before,” Lisa said. “And it tells us youth believe us when we say we are here to help.”
Though difficult to quantify, the HART program has begun to see success. Some Milwaukee-area traffickers have been arrested, due at least in part to the collaboration of HART case managers, and some youth have left the game and returned to their parents.
Specialized Foster Care Can Help
“We have to take baby steps with this program,” Lisa said. “One of the biggest needs is more safe and non-judgmental foster homes equipped to care for these youth.”
When youth have the stability of a safe place to live and trusting adults around them, they are more likely to access the resources needed to address past adversity and build resiliency. “Our HART team does exceptional work for youth who are in child welfare, or even on the street, but what we really want is more youth stabilized in safe foster homes and for more youth to eventually go back home.”
If you think you could help youth transition out of sex trafficking and back into a stable life, read about Specialized Treatment Foster Care or contact our Caregiver Coordinators at 855.GROW.HOPE or GrowHope@SaintA.org