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.

 

Wisconsin Legislation

AB 186/SB 344: This bill is commonly known as the Safe Harbor bill and we are 100% behind it. This bill would not allow children under the age of 18 to be charged with prostitution. Last session, we were able to get prostitution of a child classified as child abuse, so this bill is the next logical step. If a child is a victim of abuse, how can they be charged for the abuse they suffered? This bill has the support of Wisconsin’s Attorney General and Department of Justice, along with bipartisan sponsorship. We have been working on getting a bill like this passed for over 4 years now and hope this is the year it will finally happen! Bill text can be found here

AB 400/SB 308: This bill would increase the penalty for patronizing a prostitute from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class I felony if they have been convicted of this crime twice in the past.  Fierce Freedom supports this bill because it helps fight the demand for sexual exploitation. Bill text can be found here

AB 435: This bill would create a $5,000 surcharge for anyone convicted of soliciting or patronizing a prostitute, pandering or keeping a place of prostitution. The funds from this would be used for victim services and to help fund specialized law enforcement operations. Bill text can be found here

On the surface this seems like a good law. We do have our concerns that some of the parts included could be used to charge prostitutes and not just the buyers of sex. We also have concerns because bills like this have been proposed in the past but haven’t been passed because they are cumbersome to administer and difficult to collect fines incurred.

One to watch: There is another bill in draft form that would create a new law to give higher penalties to those that patronize a prostitute who is under the age of 18. Because this bill is only in draft form, there is no bill number associated with it yet. We agree with the concept of this law but do not want to see this passed. We are making progress in the state to get people to see that children cannot be prostitutes, they are not old enough to legally consent so therefore cannot be prostitutes and we fear putting a law like this on the books would take our state back a few steps in regards to victim care.

There are currently other laws on the books like child enticement or trafficking of a child that would cover situations laid out in the proposed law. We feel this law is unnecessary, redundant and would reinforce the mistaken idea that children can be prostitutes. If a child is being prostituted, it is child abuse and by creating a law that deals with patronizing a child prostitute, Wisconsin is sending the wrong message. We are opposed to this bill.

Federal Legislation

Our main goal with federal legislation is to help close the loopholes that allow companies like Backpage.com to make millions of dollars from advertising the trafficking of children. If you have not seen the movie “I Am Jane Doe”, we highly recommend you do so as it spells out the legal arguments much better than we can.

The problem with closing these loopholes is to not inadvertently limit free speech and protections for third party communication companies that are listed under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act (CDA).

Our argument is that CDA was meant to protect companies like Google or Facebook from being held liable for comments that people are saying on their sites. However, in our opinion, when you accept money and approve ads (like Backpage does) you are no longer an innocent third party but are an active member in the transaction.

Right now, there are two bills before Congress that address this problem. S. 1693 (also known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and H.R. 1865 (also known as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act). Neither Senators Baldwin or Johnson have signed on as sponsors of SB 1693 and Congressmen Kind and Duffy are not sponsors of HB 1865. Our office has spoken with representatives of Baldwin’s and Kind’s offices and they are considering the exact language to determine if they will support these bills or not. We have not received a response from Johnson’s or Duffy’s offices.

Upcoming Events

8/22 – LaCrosse Task Force Training, LaCrosse WI

9/7 – Internet Safety for Kids, Menomonie WI

9/15 – Sara Groves Benefit Concert, Eau Claire WI

*If you would like to volunteer for this event, contact carrie@fiercefreedom.org

9/18 – Dunn County Health Coalition, Menomonie WI

10/17 – Stanley Correctional Facility In-service

10/19 – Fierce Freedom Board of Directors Meeting

10/20 – Western Dairyland Training, Eau Claire WI

10/29 – Menomonie Methodist Church, Menomonie WI

11/18 & 19  – Freedom Boutique, Altoona WI

*If you would like to volunteer for this event, contact carrie@fiercefreedom.org

12/6 – UWEC Continuing Education, Next Steps to Fight Human Trafficking in WI: What Professionals Need to Know

Educating At-Risk Youth in Juvenile Detention

By: Jenny Almquist

I’m pretty sure it was one of the most humbling days of my life. Last week I went with one of our interns to speak with a group of youth at the Northwest Regional Juvenile Detention Center (JDC).  I supposed I hadn’t prepared myself; how could I have, really? I had never been in a facility like that in my life and I didn’t know what to expect.

We walked into the building and rode the elevator to the third floor. We waited for several minutes to be accompanied into the JDC part of the building. As we waited, they came out one by one – out from their cells. That’s right, cells. These kids have done some pretty bad stuff. One young man had already been there for four months.

We had less than an hour with the youth, five of them. I am not sure how many youth were in the building that day, but five had earned the privilege to come out and listen to us. They seemed happy to be there – maybe it was the two bags of candy in my hand.

I was humbled at the opportunity to speak with a truly vulnerable part of our society. Statistics show us that these young people are at risk to either become victims of human trafficking or to victimize and become traffickers.

Our newest employee, Carrie Swartz, will be working with these kids on a regular basis. Her background in Social Work and her experience with teaching at risk youth will benefit her as she writes curriculum to speak to the specific needs of these youth.

Thank you to the staff of the Northwest Regional JDC for the work that you do, for working with and investing in the lives of these kids. And thank you for giving us the opportunity to have a positive influence on them as well.

Fierce Freedom’s Mission is to educate, that is what we do. Did you know that we speak to groups such as:

Area police departments

Medical staff

Staff at local jails

Teachers at private and public schools (and students at those schools)

Civic organizations such as Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis Clubs

Church staff and youth groups

And more…

We also have specialized presentations such as:

Human Trafficking 101

Middle School and High School Prevention and Awareness

How to talk to your kids about tough subjects (Pornography, human trafficking, sexting, etc.)

Connections between pornography and human trafficking

Faith Community’s role in fighting human trafficking

How to talk to community leaders

Movie screenings with guided discussions

Welcome to Bryan Symes, our new Board Member

Bryan is a management-side employment and labor-relations attorney at Weld Riley, S.C. in Eau Claire.   Bryan’s law practice emphasizes, among other things, collective bargaining; the defense of harassment, discrimination and retaliation claims; the defense of wage and hour complaints; non-compete litigation, advice concerning the proper administration of employee leave laws; and crafting workplace policies.   Bryan is also a MLBPA Certified baseball agent, and regularly advises professional baseball players at the major and minor league levels.

Bryan first encountered Fierce Freedom at his local church, where he learned about the pervasiveness of human trafficking both nationally and regionally.   After struggling to accept the heartbreaking and sobering reality that is human trafficking, Bryan immediately felt compelled to contribute to Fierce Freedom’s laudable mission of mobilizing the community to recognize and thwart human trafficking efforts in the Chippewa Valley and beyond.   Bryan is excited about empowering members of the local community to eradicate human enslavement through education and encouragement, and believes that each of us shares in the collective responsibility to take action to protect those vulnerable to trafficking efforts.

Welcome to Carrie Swartz, our new Office Administrator

Carrie is the Office Administrator at Fierce Freedom. Her eyes were first opened to modern-day slavery in 2007, when she became involved with organizing the Just Us for Justice Run/Walk. Carrie has long been passionate about helping disadvantaged and oppressed people, which lead to her education and past work experience in the social work field. She has also volunteered in an administrative role for various community organizations. Her work at Fierce Freedom engages her heart and provides an opportunity to do behind-the-scenes work that makes a difference in fighting human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

Just Us for Justice: 10 Years and Running

By: Carrie Swartz

The Just Us for Justice Run/Walk celebrated a big birthday this year, holding its 10th annual event on Wednesday July 19th at Carson Park in Eau Claire. The founder and director of the race, Jessie Podolak, officially “retired” as director this year, handing the reigns over to Fierce Freedom. The Justice Run will now be organized by Fierce Freedom staff and volunteers, and will be an annual fundraising event for Fierce Freedom. Over $22,000 was raised for Fierce Freedom at this year’s event! A big THANK YOU to our generous sponsors who covered all race expenses, so that all donations made by participants went directly to Fierce Freedom.

It was an eventful year! We added a new aspect to the event, a pasta dinner, on the Sunday before the race. Attendees enjoyed spaghetti, salad, and pudding while listening to a presentation celebrating the 10th year. On race day, rain, lightning and wind swept the park prior to the race, delaying races by a half hour. Thankfully, the weather cleared just in time and it was a wonderful event! We had 578 runners registered, and over 155 people volunteered. A large tree also fell on the 2 mile race route during the storm, shortening the race to 1.7 miles! Multiple food and merchandise vendors, music, a massage tent, photo booth, and the spirit of supporting an important cause made for a fun atmosphere, as has been the flavor of the Justice Race for the past 10 years. The rain delays and some complications with our new registration and chip timing system posed some challenges (a long packet pickup line and delayed race results), but we have had very positive feedback about the event overall. Every year there is something to learn from and improve for next year!

The official slogan for the Justice Race is “Just Us: Ordinary People for Justice.” The race was founded not only to raise money to fight human trafficking and modern day slavery, but also to give all members of our community a tangible way to fight the problem. The spirit of the race continues under Fierce Freedom’s leadership, inviting everyone in our community and beyond to run, walk, volunteer, sponsor, give a donation, or share their gifts and talents in some way. Together, we are making a difference!

Looking back and looking ahead

The phone rang in our office and a woman on the other end of the line said “please talk to my daughter— she has been sex trafficked.” Our new friend agreed to come to the office and she told us her horrific story. She spoke of when she was a young girl sold over and over again to older men in our community to do un-speakable acts.

After speaking with our friend, I am relieved to say that we were able to connect her with local authorities. It was especially important because our friend is dying from cancer and she only wanted to be heard so that she could be sure that the details of her story were told to local officials now in her last days. I wish that each of you who have support our cause could have been in our office that day. Just to hear her say that she is now at peace because she knows that people finally know that truth was so empowering.

During the past year we have heard the highest highs and the lowest lows. Along with stories like the one above, we have seen people stepping up to see exploitation of youth and the sale of something that should never be sold stopped.

Thinking back on the past year I can’t help but think of all of the courage that we saw unfold in front of us. I felt with all certainty that we chose the right name for our organization – Fierce Freedom. Though I rarely feel “fierce” myself, I believe that I have come to an understanding of fierce this year.

Fierce comes from the Latin ferus ‘wild animal.’ It means strong, proud, dangerous and ready to roar. Fierce can also be used to mean intense.

Yes! That is fierce. However let me also tell you of what I have seen to be fierce. This past year I have seen weak and broken women stand up and say NO to further exploitation. I have seen shy and timid people stand in front of groups of people to talk about this crime and what it is doing to our youth. I have seen people quietly but fiercely give of their finances to see that our law makers understand what trafficking looks in WI – laws are changed in our state, enforced in our counties and our vulnerable neighbors cared for.

The coming year holds huge promise for fierce change around us. Our focus will be to train hotel staff how to recognize human trafficking and how to protect those who may be in danger. This program is called Be Aware and we are proud to partner with Visit Eau Claire and the Eau Claire Police Department for this endeavor.

Along with Be Aware we have presentations scheduled a year out with many exciting opportunities to prevent human sex and labor trafficking in the Chippewa Valley, throughout Wisconsin and in our neighboring states. It is because of these timely opportunities that I want to ask you to consider giving generously as we complete this calendar year. Your tax-deductible gift will help us bring the message of freedom and hope to thousands of youth and at-risk students in our area.

Please make plans to join us for our Night of Freedom and Hope on Thursday, February 23rd at the Lismore Hotel in Eau Claire, WI. This will be a great opportunity to hear how local lives have been impacted and changed through the efforts of freedom fighters on our team. Consider purchasing your tickets early or sponsoring a table—or coming early to bid on amazing silent auction items (details coming soon). We are excited to corporately celebrate the progress that has been made to eradicate local human trafficking.
From everyone here at Fierce Freedom, Merry Christmas and a very happy, safe and fierce New Year!

Jenny Almquist,
Fierce Freedom, Executive Director

Movie Night

Bring your popcorn and get ready to help us spread awareness by attending some of our upcoming movie screenings. We are screening two movies over the next few months and we would love for you to join us. Both movies are free and open to the public. Please see upcoming events for exact times and places.

Chosen: By Shared Hope International. This movie is meant for middle school and high school students and those that interact with that age group.

Learn the shocking true story of two teen girls tricked by traffickers. Brianna, 18, was a star student, cheerleader and waitress eager to break out of her small town to attend college in the big city. Lacy, 13, enjoyed church and school but struggled to help care for her siblings while her stepfather was deployed and mother worked to support the family. Brianna and Lacy share how traffickers used manipulation to lure them into the world of sex trafficking.

Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, is a hard-hitting documentary that exposes the disturbing trends in modern sex slavery. From the very first scene, Nefarious ushers you into the nightmare of sex slavery that hundreds of thousands experience daily. You’ll see where slaves are sold (often in developed, affluent countries), where they work and are confined. You’ll hear first-hand interviews with real victims and traffickers, along with expert analysis from international humanitarian leaders. From initial recruitment to victim liberation––and everything between–– the previously veiled underworld of sex slavery is uncovered in the groundbreaking, tell-all Nefarious: Merchant of Souls.