Yes, it happens in La Crosse. Just a few short years ago, a young local girl was picked up by a New York man, recalls Fritz Leinfelder, an investigator for the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department. With plans to return to New York, the trafficker and his victim emerged from a La Crosse hotel just moments before law enforcement swept in and made the arrest. “Had he got away, we might never have seen her again,” said Leinfelder. Authorities have identified human trafficking in all of Wisconsin’s 72 countries, with Milwaukee logging just under half of the nearly 100 reported annual cases. Already in 2022, prosecutors have obtained convictions in the Beloit and Madison areas. By some estimates, half of the kids trafficked in Wisconsin are under 18. Some as young as 11.

Although laws have tightened and sentences lengthened, traffickers have become more sophisticated in their work. “We see a lot of them making a connection through gaming,” said Leinfelder. “They pose themselves as young boys and begin their grooming behaviors.” According to Leinfelder, the most vulnerable population is typically young teens with a difficult family life and who feel lonely. “The traffickers are so good at getting into their lives and showing they care — obviously all lies,” he said.By some estimates, human trafficking is tied for second behind drug smuggling as a leading source of illicit industries, raking in over a billion dollars annually in the U.S. alone.

Leinfelder said that it’s difficult, however, to tally the exact number of trafficking cases in La Crosse. “It might not be listed as trafficking,” he said. “Could be kidnapping or prostitution. There are other categories for crimes against children.” But there is work to be done. According to last year’s Shared Hope International study, Wisconsin received an “F” on its report card on child and youth sex trafficking, scoring a dismal 45.5 out of 100 in five of the six categories.

Community involvement is definitely helpful, said Leinfelder. Yet realistically he points out that “some people wouldn’t have a clue if it was in front of them.” Thus the need for ongoing training. Those who fall victim to trafficking or domestic violence will find that in addition to area hospitals, several nonprofits in La Crosse are equipped to help put life back together. And one of the most visible is New Horizons Shelter.

Program director Heidi Svee is among those who insist that tackling trafficking calls for a community-wide effort.

“Trafficked victims really need wrap-around support and community,” she said. “Their isolation can be damaging.” While New Horizons advocates for jobs, childcare, apartments and other basics, according to Svee, it takes a nurturing community to fill those needs. New Horizons offers a 24-hour hotline for victims of trafficking or domestic abuse as well as emergency shelter and long term care up to 90 days. “People often come to the shelter with nothing,” said Svee. So in addition to a safe place to stay, the shelter provides donated clothing and toys for the children. But that just for starters. “For trafficking survivors, we have to work to build trust,” said Svee. “People who have come to us have experienced a lot of trauma.”

So mental health counseling is a key component in recovery. Although New Horizons provides an in-house therapist and support groups, Svee lamented that still “there’s a gap in the mental health area, with long waits and affordability issues.” While New Horizons saw a total of six official trafficking cases last year, Svee acknowledges that “the numbers are under-reported because so much happens under the radar.”

Another standout dedicated to helping the abused and trafficked in La Crosse is the Family and Children’s Center. Danielle Swedberg, a counselor at the center, answered the following questions about victim assistance.

How do you work with your clients?

“We’re trained to do a child forensic interview so the person doesn’t have to go through law enforcement. Sometimes they don’t even recognize themselves that they have been trafficked. Then there’s the healing and recovery piece. If someone says I don’t have a home to go back to, we can arrange for independent living or some kind of transitional living. We also have an outpatient program and can arrange for foster care.”

Can you estimate the number of cases?

“We’ve seen a couple in the last 12 months. As the definition of trafficking evolves, we’ll see more. For example, families that will prostitute their children to raise money.”

What are other ways you help?

“It varies with the individual. We’d start with the advocacy piece. We work with community mental health professionals as well as check physical health needs. We build resiliency through education and find them employment if needed.”

What is your relationship with other agencies?

“We collaborate with law enforcement and child protection as well as school districts. We have a Memorandum of Understanding with many local agencies and all work together as a team to help pre-natal through adulthood.”

 

Written by Greg Kirscher For the La Crosse Tribune