Human Trafficking: A Look Inside “The Life,” part 1

A survivor and an investigator give eye-opening details about how prevalent human trafficking is, even in our communities
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 10:18 PM CST
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SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (WBAY) - Human trafficking is a real issue happening across the country, including Wisconsin. However, most people don’t notice it even when it’s happening right in front of them.

In all 72 counties of Wisconsin is another world unseen by most with the worst to offer. It’s known as “The Life.”

“The Life, for me for a while, was my time under condemnation from traffickers and these people that were doing these awful things to myself and my family,” said Jane, a human trafficking survivor.

Most of Jane’s childhood in Wisconsin was a nightmare. The same for her siblings.

“For us, it was the sex trafficking and forced labor, so we were forced to work and make money for our stepdad. It’s what we were supposed to call him,” she said. “We were used for child pornography, specifically the girls and there were only two of us.”

The sexual exploitation went on for several years.

“Physical and sexual abuse all happened at the same time, right. It was something that happened coherently and usually started with a beating and ended with a beating,” said Jane.

In 2020, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received a total of nearly 52,000 tips related to trafficking in the United States. Wisconsin brought in 337 of those reports. It’s a number that could be a lot higher.

“It’s one of those things that we know is out there. We know it’s prevalent, but yet, we’re still just scratching the surface of it,” said Det. Scott Wieland with the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheboygan Police Department Det. Brandon Kehoe added, ”I look at ‘The Life’ as this underworld of despair where awful things are happening, and it can be in the public’s view. I think people are a little naive to the fact that it’s happening.”

Wieland and Kehoe are trying to remove the blinders by being a part of a multidisciplinary team made up of individuals representing more than 10 different agencies including Child Protective Services, the Department of Correction and Safe Harbor. It’s called the Sheboygan County Human Trafficking Task Force.

Volunteers meet monthly to plan community outreach for awareness and education on the issue.

“Everybody is selfless. They’ve motivated. They care about this work. We hold each other accountable to make sure that we’re accomplishing our goals. That’s really what sets us apart from really not only our state, but I believe, this country,” said Kehoe.

The task force started out big a few years ago when human trafficking was a buzzword.

“Not enough individuals are committing to that and so our group has shrank, but we’ve become more fluid as a result, and we’ve become more efficient, I think,” said Wieland.

Through events and presentations with schools, law enforcement, public transportation companies, community programs and more, the task force sheds light on what human trafficking is.

“There’s the labor side where you have people that are providing services and having to not being able to make their own choices. And then there’s the part that’s the sex trafficking side. Human trafficking is kind of an umbrella that encompasses both of those things,” said Kehoe.

Trafficking is invisible to the untrained eye. It’s not necessarily chains and cages in a basement or being snatched by traffickers in a white van while out for a jog.

“Generally, that’s not the case. There’s a relationship that’s built. It takes time to build that bond to the point where that potential victim feels trust and this person is finally looking out for their best interest because they never had that in their life. And then, victimization takes place really quickly after that,” said Kehoe.

Any person, regardless of age or socio-economic group, is a target.

Social media platforms are now a popular trap for traffickers to catch vulnerable youth. Apps like Snapchat, with messages meant to disappear, is a bonus for traffickers but a new battle for law enforcement.

“It’s this difficult entity that exists in our community where people kind of get sucked into it and by the time they realize they’re in it, it’s far too late,” said Kehoe.

Once sucked into trafficking, detectives say it can happen anywhere.

“Really, it happens all over the place. Obviously the hotels, motels can be kind of ground zero, so to say. There are houses where you could imagine certain activity is kind of accepted. Drug use and other things like that,” said Kehoe.

Trafficking can hide in plain sight. “Meaning human trafficking can occur in front of you, and you just no even recognize it. And you may still not recognize it, but it could still happen even close to home. And don’t think for a moment that it couldn’t happen to somebody that you know,” said Wieland.

That includes children, even while living with their parents.

“What we’re seeing in our community is, our youth for example, you might have a young girl or boy that has problems at home. Their attendance in school isn’t really there. They might be kind of experimenting with drugs. They might have had some trauma or at least layers of trauma within their life,” said Kehoe

There are several indicators of possible human trafficking for kids, such as showing up at home with new jewelry, electronics, clothes or tattoos. They skip or stop going to school and stay out late.

In public, a person who seems disoriented, is wearing clothes they’re uncomfortable in, has bruises and/or seems malnourished could be trafficked. The indicators don’t have to be present all at once. Even if there’s a doubt, report it to law enforcement.

Jane says she still sees trafficking happening around her in public places.

“I used to work at a gas station and the amount of trafficking that I saw on a daily basis, broke my heart,” said Jane.

She says turning a blind eye to what could be someone in danger, is what makes the crime nearly unstoppable.

When asked what she thought needs to happen for human trafficking to stop, Jane said, “I think we need to start opening the curtains. Starting to understand it is here in our community.”

If you think someone may be a human trafficking victim, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free at 1-888-373-7888 or text a message to 233733 “BeFree”.

You can also call your local law enforcement.