Fierce Freedom testimony on AB 186, Safe Harbor

Thank you to Chairman Kitchens and the committee for listening to the testimony of myself and others today about AB 186. My name is Jodi Emerson and I am the Director of Public Policy and Community Relations for Fierce Freedom. Fierce Freedom is a non-profit, based in Eau Claire that raises awareness and educates the public about domestic human trafficking.

 

Fierce Freedom does not offer direct services such as counseling or shelter, but we do take an active role in fighting this crime by talking to members of the community and our state about what this crime is and teaching them how someone could ever end up in a situation in which they are forced or coerced into selling their body.  One of the best parts of my job is when I get to meet with school-age kids. I teach them the warning signs, talk about how traffickers groom their victims and we discuss how they can safely intervene if a friend or someone they know could be in a trafficking situation. At one such presentation four years ago, I had a girl ask me a question that I didn’t have an answer then and I still don’t today. She asked, “If you are forced to do something, how can you be arrested for it?” That question has haunted me since. Why would she ask that? Who was forcing her to do something and what were they doing? Most importantly, how can we change this in Wisconsin?

 

By prosecuting children for a crime that is done to them, we are sending a mixed message as a state. Last year, Governor Walker signed Act 367 into law that made prostitution of a child, child abuse and mandates that DCF must investigate those situations. As part of the Wisconsin Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, we have worked hard to make sure the message being spread around the state is that these children are victims, and we need to get them the services they need. I call your attention to the Indicator and Response Guide that was developed by the Task Force. It clearly states that sexual exploitation and child sex trafficking are forms of abuse and need to be treated as such. It instructs the reader to contact child protective services, it does not instruct the reader to make sure this child is locked up in jail. I challenge you to come up with any other situation in which someone is the victim of abuse and we prosecute them for the abuse that happens to them. It doesn’t happen in any other form of child abuse, and it shouldn’t happen with sex trafficking.

 

Criminalizing children for sex trafficking sends them the message they are responsible for their victimization. We are going to retraumatize children by arresting, interrogating and prosecuting them for a crime that was done to them, not by them. We are not talking about child prostitutes. Children cannot consent, so they cannot sell their bodies. What we are talking about is child sex trafficking, or to put it bluntly people paying to rape Wisconsin’s children.

 

By passing AB 186, we are simply following in the footsteps of many other states. According to Shared Hope International, a leader in the anti-human trafficking movement, 22 states and the District of Columbia currently offer full protection for minors. Two other states offer protection for children 16 and under. Three of the four states that we share a border with have protections for child victims of sex trafficking that we do not have.

 

As someone who is from the western part of the state, we often compare ourselves to Minnesota. When we are talking about professional football, Wisconsin wins that contest no problem. But when it comes to protected exploited children, we have a lot of work to do. According to reports from the Minnesota Department of Health, which houses the Safe Harbor Program, in 2011 7 people were convicted of sex trafficking in that state. Minnesota passed its Safe Harbor program in 2011 and saw immediate dividends.  In 2012, 31 people were convicted of trafficking and in 2013, 63 people were convicted. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2016 that came out last week, Minnesota saw 235 human trafficking offenses and 191 of those were cleared. Compare that to Wisconsin, which saw 34 human trafficking offenses and 19 were cleared. That is a big difference. Talking to those in Minnesota in the past, they attribute the rise in convictions to the fact that underage victims of trafficking are no longer afraid of prosecution and are more likely to cooperate with law enforcement to help build the complex cases that result in convictions against traffickers.

 

I would also like to point out that the US State Department each year puts out a Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report for every country in the world, including our own. Each country is evaluated not only on the level of trafficking that happens within its borders but also the laws that are in place to protect people and serve victims. The top recommendation in 2015 for the US was to “Encourage the adoption of victim-centered policies at the state and local levels that ensure victims, including children, are not punished for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking.” In 2016 the TIP report stated that for the US “Challenges remain……victims should not be penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking.”

 

I understand that trafficking of children seems unreal, and that it can’t happen in Wisconsin but I assure you it is happening every day in our state. As I talk to people around the state, I like to put this horrible crime in terms they would understand. For this bill, the best analogy I’ve found is: Imagine you are sitting at a stop light and a car comes barreling up behind you and rear-ends your car pushing you through the red light. You didn’t want that to happen but you were forced into that situation. Are you going to be ticketed by the police for running a red light or do they understand that there are extenuating circumstances? Every year children of our state are arrested for something they didn’t want to do but were forced to do. Please help us strengthen Wisconsin’s laws so that this won’t happen anymore. Help us protect Wisconsin’s children.

 

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