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Hiding in Plain Sight: Fighting human trafficking in a pandemic

Published: Jul. 26, 2021 at 6:42 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 26, 2021 at 7:11 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Human trafficking is still a problem in Wisconsin state agencies continue navigating the fight through the pandemic.

On July 16, a missing teen girl from Wisconsin was rescued in Alabama after a human trafficking investigation. NBC15 has learned the 14-year-old girl was from the Madison area.

Law enforcement officials say human trafficking has likely gotten worse since the pandemic. At the Madison Police Department, the Special Victims Unit investigates trafficking cases. Detective Julie Johnson says children under 18 are especially vulnerable and many are targeted online.

‘What we find with our victims and survivors is many are children meeting people online and agreeing to meet with them,” said Johnson.

Often times, children are lured into going with their abusers. “They’re tricked into performing sex acts that they really don’t want to do,” said Det. Johnson.

An element of manipulation can make these situations very difficult to get out and for law enforcement, the pandemic makes these cases more difficult to identify and investigate. “Once they’re with that person that’s trafficking them, they may take them out of the state and they really don’t have anyone to call to help them,” said Johnson.

It’s a statewide problem that many agencies are working together to combat, including the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. Gina Paige, Communications Director for DCF says there are many misconceptions about trafficking.

“Everybody thinks it’s this deceptive thing where people are being grabbed and pulled into vans but that’s not what’s happening,” said Paige.

Trafficking can happen anywhere and victims can come from a wide range of backgrounds.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice also tackles trafficking cases.

“Victims are being sex trafficked and labor trafficked all over our state,” said Shira Phelps. Phelps works in Crime Victim Services at the DOJ.

The focus now is fighting through barriers caused by the pandemic.

“Trying to figure out that balance of providing services and for survivors to know services are still available has been a barrier,” said Phelps.

Det. Johnson says the community can help by know the signs and staying aware. Checking on your loved ones who may be vulnerable and talking to kids about internet safety are also ways to fight this issue in our communities.

Madison PD hired a full-time detective to investigate human trafficking cases in February of 2020.

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