It can happen to anyone, at an income level, in any home.
New research out this month shows 340 people under 25 were sex trafficked from 2013 to 2016 in Milwaukee. And it's happening in communities across the state. The I-Team spoke with a young woman anonymously to protect her identity. She grew up in Racine and her parents watched her walk out the door to sell herself, but they didn't know what she was doing.
"It's a game," she explained.
For 12 years the Wisconsin woman was part of "the life." She sold her body for money. She says at 16, she was vulnerable and lacked self-esteem.
"They groom you through what you can have in a sense," she explained. "So they can get your hair done your nails done and buy you purses or buy you shoes and makes you feel good and look good."
She tells the I-Team she liked the idea of buying those things for herself.
"Looking underneath my mattress and in less than month have 10,000 dollars at 16-years-old," the woman said. She explains her desire for that money turned into a web of lies.
"Before you know it I was going every single weekend. Telling my parents, going by a friend's house or going here and going there- but in actuality I was going to Chicago," she said.
She said her parents saw her changing behavior, but never imagined exactly what their daughter was doing.
"I think they associated it with promiscuity versus being in the life," she said.
Nancy Yarbrough from Fresh Start Learning in Milwaukee said it can happen anywhere, with any family.
"We always think that it's happening in a traditional poverty issue. We forget that it happens to the vulnerability of a child, so that lies in the heart of any child," Yarbrough said.
And it's happening younger and younger. The Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee estimates the average age of a victim is 13-years-old. Yarbrough said people of all ages- and genders- are trafficked.
She and other experts agree I-94 is a heavy trafficking area because it makes transportation easy. The I-Team asked the Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine District Attorney offices for information on trafficking cases. Milwaukee County has charged 62 cases since 2013. Racine County has charged 3 cases since 2014. Kenosha County has had no charges since 2013. It works with a task force that usually charges trafficking cases in Racine County. It charged 19 other child sex crimes since 2013.
"There's a lot of girls, a lot of women, and pimps who still are out there that fly under the radar," explained the woman who left "the life."
Yarbrough encourages parents to talk to their kids about sexual content or topics that may come up. She said if children ask questions, it's important to answer.
Signs of sex trafficking to watch for with your kids:
- Hanging out with new people, going new places
- Attitudes may change
- Start dressing differently
- Have money they've never had before
- Have items you didn't buy them
- Talking about people you don't know
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