One local organization is offering hope and help for victims of childhood sex trafficking, including teens from Marathon County.
By Shereen Siewert
It’s a scene out of every parent’s nightmare: children, some as young as 12 years old, being pulled into commercial sex with strangers through pimps they once thought of as friends, father figures, or role models.
In central Wisconsin, we read about such cases in national newspapers, or hear about them on TV. As parents, we might say a silent prayer of relief, grateful that we live in small town America, where our children are safe from predators like the ones found in big cities like Chicago or New York.
Except, of course, our children aren’t safe at all. In the Marathon County District Attorney’s Office, in the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department, in the emergency rooms at our local hospitals, behind the walls of psychologist’s offices and treatment centers, experts have all simultaneously and independently noted the same disturbing phenomenon. There are more young local girls entering the commercial sex industry than ever before, and their ages have been dropping drastically. The average starting age for prostitution is now 13, according to Thorn, a national task force that aims to combat predatory behavior, accelerate victim identification and protect vulnerable children.
Trafficking young girls is a hot commodity. A pound of heroin or an AK-47 can be retailed once, but a young girl can be sold 10 to 15 times a day—and a “righteous” pimp confiscates 100 percent of her earnings.
Small town case, big city problem
Marathon County’s first child sex trafficking case was charged out in 2011, after Wausau police responded to a domestic disturbance call at a North Sixth Street home. The officer arrived to find Barbi Metzger, then 27, arguing loudly with a 17-year-old Rothschild girl over money.
The girl told police she was angry because Metzger allegedly cheated her out of cash she had earned having sex with customers who had been arranged by Metzger and three other suspects, 19-year-old Darrell Vaughn, 18-year-old Nicole Riehle and 20-year-old Dominick West.
“I was only left with $150-ish, which upset me because they had no idea what I had been through for the day,” the teen wrote in a statement to police.
As the investigation unfolded, two more teens came forward and said they, too, worked as prostitutes for the group. A criminal complaint said the girls were taken to Appleton, Green Bay and Milwaukee to have sex with customers, while other encounters took place at homes and motels in Wausau.
Vaughn was accused of transporting the underage girls to hotels and apartments where sex acts would take place. Riehle, West, and Metzger posted photos of the girls on the website Backpage.com to advertise their services, and negotiated the price for their sexual favors.
All four adults were arrested, and were eventually convicted on sex trafficking charges.
Theresa Wetsteon, who was elected District Attorney in November, said she often wonders how the victims in this case are coping, six years later. Wetzsteon was the lead prosecutor on the case in 2011.
“Once kids get pulled into this kind of life, they deal with a lot of fear and embarrassment over what happened,” Wetzsteon said. “It can be tough to come back from that.”
Victims of child sex exploitation are often involved in abusive relationships and can be intimidated and fearful of certain people or situations, according to the National Center for Victims on Crime. They may feel powerless, ashamed and distrustful of others. The abuse may disrupt their development and increase the likelihood that they will experience other sexual assaults in the future.
Hope for local victims
One local organization is offering hope and help for victims of childhood sex trafficking, including victims from Marathon County. Transitions Human Trafficking Program offers intensive, specialized treatment for girls involved in sex trafficking that aims to help victims overcome their trauma.
The treatment center is run by Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan and works with girls age 10-18 who have a history of sex trafficking or are at high risk for being trafficked. The Transitions campus includes two treatment units and provides intensive, specialized therapy so girls can overcome the severe trauma they have endured. There are 30 people on staff, with space for up to 22 victims.
The Transitions 1 unit is funded by a contract LSS has with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. Child welfare and juvenile justice agencies with placement authority in non-Milwaukee counties can refer female youth who have experienced sex trafficking to the program. Milwaukee County has a program of its own. Transitions 2 is open to female youth from Wisconsin and other Midwestern states who are at risk for sex trafficking.
“The state realized there is such a need for a safe environment for victims who have been trafficked,” said Ashley Nischke, clinical manager and lead therapist. “Not everyone realizes it, but child sex trafficking happens everywhere, from small towns to big cities in every county in Wisconsin.”
Therapists at the facility use a four-phase, trauma informed program that helps Transitions residents cope with their feelings and move from sex trafficking victim to survivor, Nischke said. The average resident takes between six and nine months to graduate from the program, though some can take longer. A fully accredited school on campus allows residents to gain credits that will transfer back to their home school district, allowing them the opportunity to graduate from high school, said Monica Baer, a communications coordinator for the program.
Transitions is modeled after Lutheran Social Services’ successful Pathway Program for girls, which was previously located on the campus of Homme Youth and Family Programs in Wittenberg.
Residents learn to cope with anxiety and depression, break drug and alcohol addictions, build self esteem, repair family relationships and find ways to prevent a return to sex trafficking. From a prosecutor’s standpoint, Wetzsteon said having a safe place for survivors could ultimately result in more disclosures and more victims coming forward.
“By starting to erase the stigma surrounding child sex trafficking, more victims could feel empowered to get help,” Wetzsteon said. “Sometimes, too, once they’ve been in that life, it’s incredibly hard for these girls to go back to any kind of normal life again. It’s a different world they’ve been living in.”
Cases increase as technology advances
Human trafficking crimes are increasing around the world but remain misunderstood and are seldom prosecuted, underscoring the need for a more targeted response by government and private industry. Bradley Myles, executive director of the Polaris Project, said trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes worldwide because it combines high profit with low risk.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline found that 7,500 cases of human trafficking were reported in 2016 — up from 5,526 in the previous year, based on the group’s data.
The hotline, which is run by the nonprofit organization Polaris, maintains a resource center for victims of trafficking and aggregates statistics based on incoming reports and phone calls. The report found that California and Texas are again among the most egregious states for human trafficking, a trend that has continued for several years. In Wisconsin, 63 cases were reported in 2016.
Girls make up two out of every three child victims, and together with women, account for 70 percent of overall trafficking victims worldwide, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
“Some teens who go through this don’t even realize they’re being victimized,” Wetzsteon said. “But once they’ve been through it, their childhood is gone.”
There is no single profile for a child vulnerable to being exploited through sex trafficking, Wetzsteon said. Children become vulnerable for a range of reasons, from low self esteem to bullying, and there are predators who will always take advantage of that.
The rise in such crimes can also be partially attributed to the internet dynamic. Human trafficking, like the crimes committed by Metzger, Riehle, Vaughn and West, can be done online, through online advertising sites that mask the identity of predators. Victims lured into prostitution are no longer standing on a street corner.
“If you look at the Metzger case, you’ll see there was an almost instant response to the ads that group posted,” Wetzsteon said. “And the internet is in virtually every household in America.”
Still, there is hope. Anyone can help fight the rise of childhood sex trafficking, say advocates, government officials, prosecutors and therapists. The key, they say, is to learn the indicators of human trafficking and report suspicions to law enforcement. Trafficking victims, including undocumented individuals, are eligible for services and immigration assistance.
Signs a child has been trafficked
Signs that a child has been trafficked may not be obvious but you might notice unusual behavior or events, according to the U.S. State Department. These include a child who:
- spends a lot of time doing household chores
- rarely leaves their house, has no freedom of movement and no time for playing
- is orphaned or living apart from their family, often in unregulated private foster care
- lives in substandard accommodation
- isn’t sure which country, city or town they’re in
- is unable or reluctant to give details of accommodation or personal details
- might not be registered with a school
- has no documents or has falsified documents
- has no access to their parents or guardians
- is seen in inappropriate places such as brothels or factories
- possesses unaccounted for money or goods
- is permanently deprived of a large part of their earnings, required to earn a minimum amount of money every day or pay off an exorbitant debt
- has injuries from workplace accidents
- gives a prepared story which is very similar to stories given by other children.
Signs an adult is involved in child trafficking
There are also signs that an adult is involved in child trafficking, such as:
- making multiple visa applications for different children
- acting as a guarantor for multiple visa applications for children
- traveling with different children who they are not related to or responsible for
- insisting on remaining with and speaking for the child
- living with unrelated or newly arrived children
- abandoning a child or claiming not to know a child they were previously with.
Need help? In the U.S., contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888.
One of the troubling takeaways from a 2016 University of New Hampshire study on child sex trafficking is that many people who experience this type of harassment never tell anyone over fears their photos will be shared widely with others via social media or predatory online services. A third of the victims who responded to the survey didn’t report the incidents at all. Many were embarrassed to come forward due to the deeply personal nature of the harassment.
Of those who did contact law enforcement, many said they had received negative or dismissive responses. Many said they reported the abuse to tech companies but were faced with complicated documentation procedures, long delays and few followups.
“I think that most people don’t recognize how sadistic a lot of the perpetrators appear to be,” said Janis Wolak, lead researcher at the Crimes Against Children Research Center.