MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- The Marathon County Sheriff’s Office made no arrests for human trafficking between 2014 and 2018, according to survey results submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Justice for the 2019 Human Trafficking report released Thursday. But every year, MCSO detective’s lieutenant Jeff Stefonek tells NewsChannel 7 they investigate a handful of cases where human trafficking is a suspected factor. However, the highly-mobile nature of the crime coupled with a difficulty in gaining the trust of victims—all common hurdles in trafficking investigations—are factors resulting in an absence of arrest data.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said sex trafficking is the second-fastest-growing crime in Tennessee. / Source: (MGN)
Neither does zero arrests for a jurisdiction like the MCSO present a complete picture of human trafficking in the county, given their role in patrolling the rural areas not covered by city police departments. Stefonek says human trafficking absolutely happens in their jurisdiction, but making the arrest is often out of reach due to a variety of issues—starting with the nature of trafficking itself.
“If a young female, for example, from the Wausau area were to be lured by a trafficker into a situation like this, she would be trafficked elsewhere around the country or in a major metropolitan area like Milwaukee or Chicago or the Twin Cities,” Stefonek noted.
As 7 Investigates has reported in the past, girls between 14-16 are the most common victims of trafficking, and experts say they frequently are taken from small towns and rural areas. But once lured in, they're quickly removed from jurisdictions like the MCSO.
“For us, it’s unusual to see somebody who’s from this area who is then trafficked in this area,” Stefonek said. Suspects pass through the MCSO jurisdiction for a few weeks at a time before moving on, so a case rarely begins and ends in Marathon County.
There was at least one investigation into an adult commercial sex operation in the MCSO jurisdiction in 2019, but yielded no arrests. Given the presence of the regional drug task force and the frequency with which trafficking is often accompanied by drugs, the department encounters what they suspect to be trafficking every year—but it’s often difficult to get victims to trust law enforcement enough to cooperate with an investigation.
Wisconsin has seen its share of major human trafficking stings resulting in dozens of arrests, but generally the stings themselves occur in cities like Green Bay and Milwaukee. A 2017 bust resulting in 25 men arrested around the state nabbed 13 suspects from Vilas County. Annual FBI nationwide initiatives like Operation Cross Country make trafficking stings a constant priority, but training is changing how local law enforcement understands the issue, the 2019 DOJ report notes.
“There’s some inconsistent practices in terms of how human trafficking cases are reported,” Josh Kaul noted Thursday at a press conference for the release of the report. A desire and need for training represented one of the key findings of the report, after about one-third of its 305 law enforcement agency respondents said their agencies didn’t differentiate between human trafficking and prostitution when entering incidents into their system. The DOJ identifies the resulting incomplete and inconsistent data as one of its top concerns on the issue, with 184 human trafficking incidents reported from 2014 and 2018, but an additional 174 incidents for that same time frame categorized as either trafficking or prostitution—with no way to tell which was which. (Note: Data from 2014-2017 was separated from 2018 data in the report. Those numbers were combined to reach the numbers reported here.)
Training that further explores the link between prostitution and human trafficking has become a priority department-wide at MCSO in the past 3-4 years, Stefonek told NewsChannel 7. While they had had a few trained deputies in the years prior, initiatives to get the entire department educated on how to properly detect and understand human trafficking is why Sheriff Scott Parks noted on the DOJ survey that he believes his department is well-trained to differentiate between trafficking and prostitution, as well as handle human trafficking cases.
“A lot of the training that we have received in the past few years pertains to the fact that a lot of those people that we label as prostitutes are really not prostitutes in the traditional sense,” Stefonek said. “They are victims. And just using the term ‘prostitute’ kinda revictimizes them because they’re not looked at in the light they should be.” Traditional thinking, he noted, centered on the “john” or prostitution solicitor and the prostitute herself. Updated training, provided by agencies around the country as well as the state DOJ, has shifted focus in the past decade to those who profit from the trade.
“Our training has been about recognizing that somebody else is forcing or coercing them into that situation, somebody else is profiting from that situation.” Victims who aren’t ready to open up now can, when interacted with appropriately, be willing to report their circumstances later.
“They might not be ready right now, but if we’ve had this training and we’ve talked with them in an appropriate way, maybe two years from now they’ll come back to us and be ready to share information, either after they’re tired of it all or they’ve removed themselves from some part of it and they feel safer talking.”
In the DOJ report, most counties in the NewsChannel 7 viewing area came in as average or above average both in understanding the difference between prostitution and human trafficking, as well as their belief in their ability to handle human trafficking cases.
7 Investigates is still working to obtain the survey results submitted to the DOJ by other area city police departments to gain a complete picture of the statistical picture of trafficking in north central Wisconsin.