By Angela Simmons
“What goes on in the house, stays in the house,” words read by Saturday’s Community Brainstorming Committee moderator Martha Love during the monthly forum’s focus on human trafficking at St. Matthew CME Church recently.
These are not Love’s words, but the words told to a middle school student by her mother. This middle school student is a victim of human trafficking who, in the same statement, said she just wants to be a kid.
Sadly, this child’s circumstances are not an anomaly, but part of the 79% of human trafficking cases reported in Milwaukee, human trafficking’s third largest hub in the nation. According to a 2015 report by The Guardian, Milwaukee has ranked consistently, over the last four years, among the top five cities in the U.S. for recovered adolescent victims of human trafficking. In 2011, Milwaukee was ranked number one. It is important to note that a large number of human trafficking cases go unreported,
Human trafficking is defined as the “illegal movement of people, typically for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.” The average age for girls who become victims of sex trafficking is 13, though reports of children younger than 13 have been documented. Boys are also victims.
A CBC forum panel on Human Trafficking and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder advocates met with members of the community to share tough stories and to bring awareness. Panelists included Milwaukee Police Detective Dawn Jones, Fresh Start Learning, Inc. Executive Director Nancy Yarborough, Branch 21 Circuit Court Judge Cynthia M. Davis, Pastor Bobby Sinclair of Mount Hermon Baptist Church and local psychologist Dr. Ramel Smith.
Det. Jones, who has nine years with the MPD’s Sensitive Crimes Bureau, stressed the importance of a nonjudgmental approach when discussing her experiences with victims of human trafficking. “When it comes to trafficking, I think people want to see what is black and white as opposed to what the gray area is. So, I think what we need to do is show who’s actually being trafficked [and who the traffickers are] so we can keep our eyes out there; and that’s anybody and everybody,” said Det. Jones.
Jones also informed forum participants that trafficking reaches across all socioeconomic statuses, religions and ethnicities. “We go by the truth, not what the media shows us,” stated Det. Jones. “We need to treat others as God has treated us; show grace and show love. And, regardless of what we think we would have done in their shoes, we’ve not been in their shoes, so we need to get rid of any judgment at all.”
Yarborough approach is strictly “boots on the ground” or “consultation on wheels” as she described her organizations work; work that is largely built on establishing trust with victims of trafficking; those looking to get out and those in need of basic necessities.
“When you’re out there in trafficking, what happens is you build a wall of resistance … It’s a wall that they have to have to protect them out there on the streets,” said Yarborough. “But when you break down that wall of trust they have to start feeling again.”
During the week the Sherman Park neighborhood was hit with unrest after the police shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith, a woman Yarborough counseled in the same area was shot and killed. Her death garnered little news coverage along with several others that week as told by Yarborough—all victims of trafficking.
Yarborough explained that the fear and trauma victims of human trafficking experience are very real. According to Yarborough, a friend of one of the women killed, who is also a victim of trafficking, stopped Yarborough on the street days after, said she saw her friend’s life taken, then asked if Yarborough had any deodorant. “There’s no time to mourn,” said Yarborough. “They still have to work.”
Dr. Smith, spoke about the relationship between human trafficking and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how that differs from Complex PTSD.
Dr. Smith described PTSD as a traumatizing event that has made an individual fearful of certain situations, so the person disassociates and starts to move away from the trigger.
“The thing about complex trauma, is that it goes on repeatedly … when we see people who live in neighborhoods that look like third world countries or crime wards; this is when we talk about complex trauma, that you are [being] traumatized on a regular basis,” Dr. Smith stated. Dr. Smith pointed out that victims are often victimized by those in their household, or by others who are supposed to be protectors: parents, teachers, police officers.
Dr. Smith said Complex PTSD has the potential to manifest in different ways or to become “vicariously traumatizing,” stating that pimps have also sometimes been the victim; having to use how they were socialized to survive.
“I think we’re in the business of criminalizing poverty, and we don’t look at the affects that poverty has on the developing brain, on the developing child,” said Dr. Smith.
In one area the techniques and behaviors one repeatedly learns in their environment growing up is a protective feature that may provide confidence and security, but in another area the traits render punitive effects on the person’s life.
Here Dr. Smith pressed the “protective standpoint” and the “proactive standpoint.” He urged the audience to look at the cause whether than just penalizing the effect. This is actual rehabilitation, Dr. Smith said. He believes it’s an important piece to stopping human trafficking.
Judge Davis touched on her experiences as it relates to the challenges of prosecuting human trafficking cases. Like Det. Jones, Judge Davis believes “The John,” or person(s) obtaining the illegal acts, is part of the problem and must be prosecuted, too.
The challenges Davis encountered include: How many times the victim has to testify, retaliation against the victim, victims not identifying themselves as a victim, complexity of the investigation and blaming the victim.
“There’s such a stigma attached [to the victims of trafficking]; feelings of shame and guilt,” Davis stated. “Then once victims do get that strength to report and the case gets charged and we’re in trial, oftentimes what happens is … the defense is going to try to undermine that victims credibility.” Judge Davis said many defense attorneys label the victim a prostitute, and then ask the jury “how can you believe her?”
“And, unless you have a very well informed jury who is educated about all of the nuances of trafficking, there’s a chance the person doesn’t get convicted,” said Davis.
“The community’s willingness to talk about human trafficking is huge,” stated Assistant District Attorney Erin Karshen.
“Once [the victim] talks to that one trusted person then hopefully they can talk to law enforcement, hopefully they can talk to the District Attorney’s office.”
By Angela Simmons