Sex Trafficking Victims Need Support, Encouragement

A group of co-workers and I recently attended the second bi-annual conference “Not for Sale,” Wisconsin’s Response to Human Trafficking. This two-day conference had presenters from across the country and from Mexico discussing the prominent issue of girls and boys, of all ages, being purchased for sex and options on how to support them outside of this way of life. The conference shed light on the challenges in identifying the victims of this crime against children and offered insight into how to effectively work with them.

While most of the available information relates to girls, boys also are trafficked. This occurs at much younger ages for boys, starting at closer to 4-6 years old. It is estimated that there are 35 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, with 300,000 children and youth at risk. Many of these young people come from broken families where violence, alcohol and drug issues are common, and 80% to 90% were sexually abused within the year prior to being trafficked.

Angela Haese
Angela Haese

Statistics for human trafficking are not exact, however, because of the difficulty in identifying victims. These youth often use aliases and give incorrect birth dates to authorities, so they are not identified as child victims of abuse and neglect. There can be a sense that these youth willingly participate in these sexual acts, which is far from accurate. Unfortunately, many states criminalize these youth by prosecuting them for crimes instead of providing them with support and services. Thirteen states have laws that prevent this from happening. Wisconsin is not one of them.

In 2008, New York State passed the Safe Harbor Law for Sexually Exploited Children Act, making it the first law in the nation to protect and not punish trafficked and exploited youth. This initiative was started by Rachel Lloyd, founder and CEO of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS). Ms. Lloyd is known for her tireless dedication to these girls and their needs, and she’s a strong advocate for them. She co-produced a documentary, “Very Young Girls,” that portrays what these girls experience as survivors of human trafficking. She gave a keynote presentation at the Wisconsin conference that was factual and thought provoking on what these girls need and ideas on how to provide these services.

Contrary to the idea that girls are kidnapped and pressed into human trafficking, the pimps often are known to the girl, as they hang out in their neighborhoods. They offer the girls a “better life” by initially giving them clothes, gifts, shelter, etc., and promises of love and being part of a family. After a period of time, they tell the girls that they now “owe” them and have to “work it off” by engaging in sexual acts and giving the money to the pimp.

These young girls believe their pimp loves them and is the only one who will take care of them, despite being beaten and starved for periods of time when they try to leave and/or are not obedient to him. Unfortunately, the life these pimps offer may be better than that with the girl’s family; their families often are not supportive and blame them for being a “prostitute.” Most girls will return to their pimp an average of seven times before they permanently leave the trafficking world. It also is not uncommon for them to change pimps, as they are offered a “better” life than the one with their current pimp. This culture is very interconnected, as many of these girls know each other and have had the same pimps.

Often these youth are treated as though they are criminals who chose to be bought and sold for sexual acts. This is far from accurate; they are victims in need of support, guidance and assistance. Working with this population requires strong, stable and consistent individuals and professionals who are non-judgmental of the girls and what they have experienced. These girls have a keen sense of when people are judging or “looking down” on them. The conference stressed that being non-judgmental was a way of ensuring the girls do not feel they are “less than,” as that will make them run away. They need to feel accepted and valued as a person with feelings, thoughts and opinions.

It takes a lot of support and encouragement for these girls to reach out for assistance, so individuals must be ready, willing and able to follow through on what they say they will do. For instance, if they tell a girl they will answer a phone call, they must answer the phone call, even if it’s 3 a.m. It often takes a girl hearing the same information numerous times before she reaches out for assistance and support. However, it is crucial to remember that relapse is expected and common for this population. Therefore, it is very important to remain open to working with these girls and to keep an “open door policy,” so they can return multiple times.

These girls need a variety of services and assistance to deal with the various traumas they have experienced, through their family, friends, pimps and buyers of sex acts. It is common for these girls to have mental health and alcohol and other drug issues, as this helped them cope and get through life.

Wraparound Milwaukee approached SaintA’s Treatment Foster Care (TFC) program to initiate a Specialized TFC program where these girls could be placed in a TFC home, be part of a family setting and receive needed services, instead of being put in secure detention, residential treatment centers or group homes. A committee was established with the TFC staff, supervisors, director and recruitment staff to establish this program. We have been meeting regularly to discuss the following: the criteria for the foster parents to be eligible; how to best support of the foster parent with the secondary trauma they may experience; identifying training for foster parents; identifying service providers and other professionals important to working with these girls. These discussions have included how to engage and be effective in working with these girls and to deal with the challenges that are often presented, like running away, alcohol and drug issues, mental health issues, etc. These are ongoing discussions and we have met with community professionals who have shared insight and suggestions for this program.

We are actively recruiting for the Specialized Treatment Foster Care program, so I sincerely hope that anyone interested in reaching out and helping these girls will call 855-GROW-HOPE.

Interested in learning more about our foster care and adoption services? Visit


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