City of Madison Takes Efforts to Address Child Sex Trafficking

A young girl walked into a Madison public high school one Monday morning this spring. Her hair had been done professionally, her nails were polished and manicured. She was sporting a new, expensive outfit, and she spoke to her friends about the hotels she had stayed in that weekend.

The girl was also homeless.

Amy Noble immediately received a phone call from the teacher, notifying Noble that the student was a possible victim of sex trafficking. Noble is a social worker who has been addressing homeless students and child sex trafficking for the past decade. She is responsible for the social work services of the entire Madison Metropolitan School District.

Wisconsin has faced increasing levels of human sex trafficking within the past several years, particularly among homeless children and young adults. According to Briarpatch Youth Services, every night there are 300 or more teenagers and young adults in Dane County that do not have permanent homes.  At the end of the day, they couch-surf, sleep in cars, or on the streets.  With nowhere to go, and no one to turn to, many young women and men find themselves trapped in sex trafficking rings fueled by pimps and an increasing demand for sex workers.

“An advocate for human trafficking victims recently called Milwaukee ‘the Harvard of pimp schools’ and Wisconsin ‘the hub of human trafficking,” said Attorney General Brad Schimel during a press conference in Milwaukee this fall.

But Milwaukee is not alone.  Dane County has identified over 400 sex trafficking victims since March of 2012, according to Detective Maya Krajcinovic of the Madison Police Department.  As of January 2016, there are 1,414 documented homeless children in Madison alone, and within 48 hours one in three of these children will be approached to trade their bodies for basic needs, such as food, shelter and clothing, or for alcohol and drugs.

Although sex trafficking has been an issue throughout the country and the state of Wisconsin for decades, the problem has been exacerbated in recent years driven by the use of the internet to buy and sell victims for sex.  Because of the underground nature of sex trafficking, data regarding victims is often difficult to collect and members of the public are often unaware of the severity of trafficking in their cities.

Sex trafficking poses major challenges to the state of Wisconsin. Milwaukee is one of the largest hubs of sex trafficking in the nation, according to Detective Roger Baker of the Madison Police Department. In a 2013 FBI sting, pimps and sex trafficking perpetrators told investigators that Wisconsin was one of the easier states to traffic children. State records show that sex trafficking has been documented in all of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, and there were 77 children involved in sex-trafficking in Milwaukee alone in 2003.

The state recently launched a statewide human trafficking awareness campaign and task force to address the growing sex trade market throughout the state. The committee is co-chaired by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, and the Secretary of Children and Families, Eloise Anderson.

“The overarching goals of this campaign are to raise public awareness, encourage tips, and – most importantly – reach victims and connect them to resources and safety,” said Representative Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton.)

This state task force as well as nonprofits, shelters and local police departments throughout the state are now working in tandem to address the problem of sex trafficking in Madison. But, despite these efforts, the state of Wisconsin remains behind many other states in regards to sex trafficking reforms. Legislation is outdated, services for victims are limited throughout the state and many shelters deny children that do not have parental consent.

In recent years, the city of Madison has begun to make significant reforms to implement and develop updated policies, procedures and services for sex trafficking victims, particularly within nonprofits, advocacy groups and the Madison Police Department.



Despite Wisconsin’s high rate of child sex trafficking, its policies and procedures are out of date in comparison to other states.

Under current state statute, a child who is a victim of sex trafficking may be charged with the crime of prostitution, regardless if the child was coerced or forced into the act.

“To me this doesn’t make sense,” said State Representative Jill Billings (D-La Crosse). “Children cannot legally agree to have sex…these kids who the police pick up are being human trafficked by somebody else by means of force or coercion. They are not criminals, they are victims.”

In May of 2015, Billings introduced the Safe Harbor Bill that would address this issue by removing any criminal charges against children for prostitution.  Similar statutes have already been adopted by 24 other states. It would also require the Department of Children and Families to investigate all incidents of child abuse, regardless of the perpetrator’s relationship to the child.

Last year there were 24 children that were charged with prostitution in Wisconsin, all of whom were also victims of sex trafficking.

“It doesn’t seem like that many children, but for these kids who are trying to get back on the right track, whether they are applying for a job or school, or financial aid you have to disclose that you have committed a crime, and that’s a horrible situation,” Billings said.

The bill faced some criticism in the state legislature. Some representatives do not believe that there will be funding available for the Department of Children and Families to investigate every single allegation of abuse. In addition, some legislators have expressed concern regarding how prominent prostitution may become if it is decriminalized for youths, and others believe that arresting children is the only way to keep them safe.   

Billings addressed some of these concerns, noting that sex trafficking victims that are brought in through human services instead of being arrested have much better relationships with investigators, recover more quickly and are more likely to share more information that could convict their pimps, which would eventually help more children.

MMSD social worker Amy Noble agrees that it is often difficult to communicate with sex trafficking victims due to the nature of crime, and that arresting them is not the answer.

“The way you first address these youths is going to make or break your relationship,” she said.  

Despite this statue, the Madison Police Department has taken a different approach to addressing sex trafficking victims.

“The philosophy is that we don’t charge juveniles with prostitution if they are sex trafficked, we treat them like victims and focus on the traffickers that are making a profit on this,” said Detective Roger Baker of the Madison Police Department.

Baker notes the importance of convicting the pimps and sex traffickers, particularly because sex trafficking can be such a money maker. Different from drug dealing, where dealers must invest their savings to buy drugs each time, sex traffickers can continually sell victims without any cost or investment on their part.

Instead of arresting and jailing sex trafficking victims, the Madison Police Department assesses each child’s individual welfare. Each child’s situation is different, according to Baker, so it is important to address their physical and mental needs and direct them to the correct human services program.

The Madison Police Department also developed its first Special Victims Unit this February, which is a specialized division meant to focus on sexual assault based crimes. It will include child sex trafficking as a major component, said Baker.

Despite some of the criticisms of the Safe Harbor bill, there is strong bipartisan support in the State Assembly.  The bill was also endorsed by Schimel. Billings hopes to have the bill passed and implemented by the end of this assembly session.