She was 14.
She was dirty, she was hungry, she’d been running away from home for about a year, and she was 14.
There came a time when she hadn’t eaten anything or slept at all in three days when a man who had taken her out to dinner in the past approached her. He said he could take her back to his place where she could clean herself up, take a shower and even get a bite to eat. She agreed, and it was during this time at his house when he drugged her. She was 14.
By the time she woke up, she was halfway to Dallas and her new life as a victim in the child sex-trafficking industry. She was confused and terrified and she was 14.
“He told me that, ‘Well, we need to make money and this is why I brought you down here and she’s gonna show you the ropes.’”
The “ropes” meaning showing her how to turn dates, how to recognize them and how to price them.
This is Martha Kuhlman and she was sold around the country to different pimps from age 14 to 19. Although Martha was 14 when she was “turned-out,” a term meaning coercing someone into the sex trade, the average age in the US that a child enters into sex-trafficking is 13, with the youngest victim recovered being only 18 months.
Wisconsin, and more specifically the Milwaukee area, consistently rates very high nationally among the amount of victims recovered and pimps prosecuted. Around the country, Milwaukee is known as “the Harvard of Pimp School.” This is due a number of contributing factors that are also major problems in Milwaukee:
- Runaways: The mass majority of human-trafficking victims are runaways just looking for their next meal.
- Broken Homes: Human-trafficking victims often come from broken homes where sexual and physical abuse are common.
- Drug Abuse: Drugs and alcohol play a major role in keeping the victims in line.
Operation Cross Country is a nationwide takedown of human-trafficking rings and part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation initiative Innocence Lost which began in 2003. According to a press release from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, last year’s Operation Cross Country IX brought to justice 153 pimps and recovered 149 underage victims. The Wisconsin operation tied for third in the nation with the amount of juveniles recovered (Denver – 20; Detroit – 19; Las Vegas – nine; Milwaukee – nine). The state broke down like this:
- Appleton – one adult, one trafficker
- Brown County – 10 adults, three traffickers
- Fond du Lac – one adult, one juvenile, one traffickerLa Crosse – two adults, one trafficker
- Monroe – one juvenile
- Oak Creek – five adults
- Oshkosh – three adults, one trafficker
- Racine – 20 adults, one trafficker
- West Allis – three adults, two juveniles, two traffickers
The problem is clearly not limited to urban areas. In fact, there have been convictions for trafficking in all 72 counties in the state of Wisconsin. Milwaukee is ahead of the rest of the state, though, being where 79 percent of all human-trafficking convictions occur.
Gender and race play a big role in who is victimized in Milwaukee. Of the juvenile victims bought and sold for sex, 78 percent of them were African American and 92 percent were female, although police officers are noticing a rise in transgender victims, according to the non-profit, Unlucky 13.
The specific numbers of buyer and seller convictions are not easy to come by because of the early stages that these task forces are in.
“That is one of the things that we struggle with right now, again, because everything is so very disjointed, is that everybody has their own numbers and this is something that we are working on right now,” said Milwaukee Police Department Captain Aimee Obregon who is the Commander of the Sensitive Crimes Division. “We are in the process of getting a human-trafficking coordinator who can actually track that.”
It is the dynamics of this crime that make it so difficult to track in simple numbers. The police might find a missing person and that person may have been trafficked but won’t tell police officers about it. This is a major problem considering that most victims don’t like to admit to being victims; also, some were never even aware that what was happening was wrong.
Another rising trend in human-trafficking that is skewing the numbers is that victims, after seeing how much money can be made, are becoming traffickers themselves. Sex trafficking is a $99 billion a year industry with the average pimp bringing in $100,000 a year. “High end” pimps can make millions according to the non-profit, 5-Stones.
Trafficking does not need to involve travel, either. The word “trafficking” often leads people to think that these children are being shipped to the US from third-world countries. In Milwaukee, 85-90 percent of the time, the victims are being sold two or three streets down from where they came from.
Martha’s childhood sounds very normal at first. She absolutely loved her father, who was a reverend. He was her hero. When she was six, though, her parents divorced and she was sent to live with her mother.
At that same age, she was molested by a friend’s older sister.
Not knowing how to comprehend the situation, Martha never told anyone. She was raised generally very strictly by her mother; going to private schools and church activities almost constantly. She played violin and piano.
When she was 13, she was raped by her school bus driver.
Again, finding herself in a situation she just couldn’t understand, she started running away. A major misconception about sex-trafficking as that the children are abducted. This is almost never the case. They are usually runaways. Runaways are seen as easy victims because they have nowhere to go, are in need of a lot and usually already have a disposition towards authority figures.
Child sex-trafficking is a major a problem in the US, a fact that many people want to ignore. This is due to many misconceptions that surround the sex-trade industry. Another major misconception is that sex-trafficking and prostitution are the same thing. Prostitutes work independently or with a pimp whereas victims in the sex-trafficking industry do not see one red cent from their acts. That is why they are commonly referred to as “sex slaves”.
Martha recalls a time when she was 15 and she was sold to a pimp in New York. He took her to her new home, which was an apartment, and before she even entered she noticed something very unusual: there was a padlock on the outside of the door. This lock was not to keep someone from getting in, but to keep someone from getting out.
“There were nothing but mattresses in the apartment and there were kids as little as eight and 9-years-old in the apartment,” Martha said. “There was a lot of us.”
This is where Martha got addicted to heroin. The pimp’s girl, or his “bottom”, meaning the girl in charge of the other girls, started shooting Martha up with heroin as a way to solidify her devotion. Drugs are a huge component when it comes to manipulation in the sex-trafficking industry. Pimps get their girls addicted so they have to keep coming back. The kids that Martha was in the apartment with didn’t even talk to each other; they were all so strung-out to do anything, even at age 10.
This was Martha’s life for the next four years, “You are beat up on a regular basis,” Martha said. “If you look at another pimp, you get beat up. If you don’t come in with enough money, you get beat up. If you say something sass-like, you get beat up. Or just because he’s having a bad night, you get beat up.”
This is not an easy life to get out of, either. Martha mentioned a time when she was beaten by her pimp from her neck to her calves with a coat-hanger and it begs the question, why not just run away when you get the chance? Martha’s answer was simple, “They will hunt you down.”
To this day, Martha still experiences what she calls “flashbacks”; where if she sees a familiar type of vehicle, her mind will put one of her old pimps in the driver seat and it will unleash an extreme level of anxiety over her.
As Martha got older, her pimps started using her for other work as well, namely, smuggling drugs across state lines. It is this act that would eventually “rescue” her from this life. How did she escape? She went to prison.
When she was 19, she was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia with a large sum of cocaine and was sentenced to five years in prison. When asked how it felt to have to go to prison, Martha replied with one word, “Relief.”
“I would say manipulation is 99 percent of trafficking,” Special Agent Jacob Jansky of the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigations said. “Whether it be manipulation through being overly nice to somebody or just through brute force.”
Special Agent Jansky has been with the Wisconsin Human Trafficking Task Force for three years focusing on child sex-trafficking cases and was a police officer on the west side of the state before that.
Many people think of the pimp/victim relationship as very violent but it almost never starts that way. The pimps know exactly what they are looking for when it comes to their next victim. Not only do pimps target runaways because they have nowhere to go, but also because they are easily manipulated. In almost all cases of the children rescued from sex-trafficking, they come from very broken homes.
Sexual, physical and drug abuse are very common in the homes the victims grew up in. It is due to this home life that makes them want to leave in the first place. They are on the street when a man in a nice car drives up. He tells them he can bring them out of the cold and into glitz and glamour. He tells them everything they want to hear. He knows exactly what they want to hear because, chances are, he has done this at least a dozen times before.
“Traffickers know exactly what to look for,” said Jansky. “They know to drive by the bus stop and look for the girl that is out of the rain today.” These victims often come from homes where they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or that is heated by an open stove. Most don’t live with their parents, but with friends or extended family so it does not take a lot to convince them they might be better off on their own.
So suddenly, a person who has basically been ignored their whole life is now being showered with gifts and praise by a pimp. When this very nice-seeming, attractive man asks her sleep with someone else for some money, it doesn’t seem that strange because she trusts him and he wouldn’t do wrong by her. The spider has another fly.
“Most of the time, the kids don’t want to go home. They ran away for a reason,” Martha said. “They don’t have anywhere to go and they dazzle them with all these presents.
“They are really good, they’re master manipulators, because they will sweet-talk you, they will wine-and-dine you and they buy you everything in the world. I had jewelry and beautiful clothes.”
Martha said that it would be almost impossible to distinguish between a pimp and a real boyfriend in those early stages.
It doesn’t have to be extravagant gifts that keep a victim around, either. Sometimes, it is just food and shelter.
“They are afraid that if they don’t do what this person tells them to do, they are going to be back out on the streets, starving, or something worse,” said Special Agent Jansky. “And they will just do whatever is asked of them.”
The ever changing dynamics of human-trafficking is something that makes it very difficult to stop. A major factor that has been a thorn in the side of people trying to put an end to human-trafficking has been the Internet.
“A lot of this is really done secretly,” said Captain Obregon. “This isn’t like, you know, a prostitute, well, routinely it’s not like a prostitute standing out on corner. A lot of this is done in secret and in private.
Most people are familiar with the idea that some people use Craigslist in order to find escorts. It should be pointed out that these “escorts” are not just that, they are more often than not victims of human-trafficking.
There is also another local website that many people use for escorts. It follows the same style of Craigslist by having a user click their city and then select the service they need. If a user clicks Milwaukee and then clicks “escorts” they will see page after page after page of girls “for sale.”
“I would get up and testify in front of anybody that every one of these ads are ads for prostitution,” Special Agent Jansky said.
The day that this article was written there were 131 new posts in the escort section for that day alone, with a new post going up every five to 15 minutes. Of course, each girl has their age listed as 18 to 24 and they use make-up and poses that make them look older.
A Google search for “Milwaukee escorts” will give you page after page of these type of sites also, but the site referred to is the most known and the most used and this is extremely important for authorities trying to stem child sex-trafficking because this page works with law enforcement.
“If I think that this girl right here is a juvenile, and I somehow get enough probable cause to write them a subpoena for that? Within four or five hours, I will have all the information I asked for, and more,” Special Agent Jansky said.
This website is one of the few websites that cooperates with law enforcement. They will even self-report themselves with their own moderators if they see a girl who looks underage. This seems good-natured but it is due mainly to government pressure.
“Make no bones about it, they have made millions and millions and millions of dollars facilitating prostitution and child sex-trafficking,” Special Agent Jansky said.
Then there is always the lingering question: what happens to the “Johns” or buyers? The answer, to much disbelief, is not much. When a girl posts her age as 18 or 19 on the escort website, it is almost impossible to find out if the buyer knew she was a juvenile. Therefore, the buyer will just a get a slap on the wrist with a municipal ticket.
Many argue that if you take away the demand then there will be less supply. People who have been in this for a while, such a Special Agent Jansky and Captain Obregon, will tell you this is not the case. It is simply not financially viable to take down every “John”, when the resources could be used to take the down the trafficker.
Think of it in terms of dealing drugs. Law enforcement could arrest everyone who has ever bought an illegal substance, but it always makes more sense to go after the dealer instead. Although, unlike drugs, children have a “resale” value, meaning they can be sold multiple times in one day. It is also worth noting that “Johns” are not usually in any type of position where an arrest for soliciting prostitution is going to matter to them.
“To tackle that ‘John’ side of it, while it is an important mission and a mission that I think needs to happen, how do you turn away juvenile or adult victims of threats and violence and force to go after countless numbers of people that, there’s almost no end to it, you know?” Special Agent Jansky said.
“The word that I always use when I talk about trafficking is that I am drowning in it,” Captain Obregon said. “I am getting new referrals every day, new cases every day and new victims, new suspects and it’s never ending.”
Exploit No More
Exploit No More is a non-profit organization with a goal of providing relief for girls who have been rescued from child sex-trafficking.
Founded in 2013 by a group a churches, Exploit No More’s goal is to build a house for aftercare of girls who have been rescued from child sex-trafficking.
In 2012, there were fewer than 250 beds for children that have survived being sexually exploited in the entire United States of America. In Wisconsin, there are only six beds available to the Justice Department when a child is rescued from a trafficker.
Exploit No More wants to add eight more.
Exploit No More is currently in negotiations to buy a house right outside of Milwaukee that will house and rehabilitate girls who have been rescued from sex-trafficking. The house will be staffed with professional, trauma-informed caregivers that will provide help to the girls in a home-like setting.
For obvious reason, the location of this home cannot be disclosed.
Exploit No More has over 150 volunteers who work in Milwaukee and in surrounding cities. They do various jobs such as speak to groups to raise awareness as well as train people on how to recognize a trafficking victim.
The volunteers also assemble and distribute what they call “restoration bags.” These are bags that they drop off with the Milwaukee Police Department to be given to girls upon being rescued. The contents of these baskets include clothing, as the girls usually have next to nothing, and gift cards to buy food and essential items.
Another item included in some of these “restoration bags”: a teddy bear.
Something else Exploit No More has been largely involved with is legislative advocacy. Eighty percent of the children recovered from child sex-trafficking have had experience with the foster care system and until recently, the foster parents were never faced with repercussion.
The Child Welfare program never knew how to deal with this problem considering they did not have jurisdiction over it. Now with this new legislation, passed in a major part by Exploit No More’s efforts, they are now legally held responsible for the actions of the child and that has created a huge sense of urgency around training their workers.
A young advocate of Exploit No More, Hannah Redder, ran across the state last year to raise money and bring awareness to child sex-trafficking. She ran 20 miles a day for 10 days from Superior to Milwaukee.
“I heard Brian Hunter speak at my church, he ran across Mongolia for children who live in the city dumps and I was like, man, I just need to do something,” Redder said. “And then I heard Buck Blodgett speak at my school the very next day and he said, our generation is what’s going to make the difference in the world, and I was like, okay, I need to do this.” Blodgett being the father of recently murdered teen from Hartford, Wisconsin.
It was originally estimated that she would raise $6,000 for the home for child sex-trafficking victims, but she ended up raising $20,000.
When asking the prominent people who are face-to-face with trafficking each day if they ever considered hanging up their hats for a job that is less upsetting, the answer was a resounding “No.”
“I kind of live by the motto, you know, that, I have been placed where I am supposed to be. Today, I am planted where I am supposed to be and so I; I love what I do because I feel like I can come into work every day and actually make a difference,” Captain Obregon said.
“Where do you draw the line on importance and efficiency and what is the priority? What is the mission?” Special Agent Jansky said. “We’ve taken the stance, you can never go wrong when your mission involves kids. You can never go wrong.”
As for Martha’s involvement with Exploit No More? Surprisingly, she found them. She heard of this organization and knew that it was her responsibility to help girls in a position she once found herself in.
“I said, ‘hey, I am a survivor, I would love to tell you guys my story,’” Martha said.
“I read a book when I was 19 called ‘Sometimes God Has a Kid’s Face’ and it was all about kids that were at a home called Covenant House. It was for runaways. And in there, there was this story about a girl who was a prostitute who went into a church on Christmas Eve, because that’s the only place she felt at home, and that was me, on Christmas Eve.
“Ever since I read that, I’ve wanted to work with kids who were in the life and who wanted out or who didn’t know any better and so, it’s always been a dream of mine.”