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Human Trafficking in Wisconsin: What Educators Need to Know

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. As a serious and complex problem, human trafficking is not only a national issue but a local one as well, present in every county in the state of Wisconsin. It occurs in cities, suburbs, and rural areas, and is more common than many people realize.

Human trafficking is defined as the misuse of other people, often for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor (Wisconsin Department of Children and Families n.d.).

Child sex trafficking falls under the definition of abuse and must be reported to Child Protective Services or law enforcement, even if the perpetrator is unrelated to the child.

What Educators Should Know

Children are trafficked due to the demand for these illegal and harmful services. Individuals of all ages and genders have been trafficked. Traffickers have complex criminal organizations in place to deceive youth into increasingly harmful situations and may exploit youth through force, fraud, abuse of power, control, or violence.

It is common for traffickers to threaten people the youth cares about, or to threaten to expose past behavior of the youth to loved ones. Students who are homeless, runaway, or living in out-of-home care placements are especially vulnerable, though students of all backgrounds have been involved. Many youths who are being trafficked do not see themselves as victims or may not realize they are being trafficked. The average age of first exploitation is 12-14.

To best support a student in this situation, it is important to have an understanding of where they may be coming from. Victims may feel blame or lack of self-worth and not even see themselves as victims. They may feel positive toward the trafficker and still fear for their safety.

It is important for school staff to reduce the possibility for child abuse, especially child sexual assault, to occur at school and school activities. Staff must understand that it is our duty to keep kids safe at school through our policies, procedures, and actions. Pupil services staff and administrators can work together to ensure adults are trained and feel empowered in child sexual abuse prevention.

Taking Action

While teaching students personal safety and protective skills are important, they are not enough. Schools need to examine policies that prevent abuse from occurring and help staff to respond appropriately if something does happen. Schools may want to collaborate with local sexual assault service providers for guidance in choosing a curriculum to provide for their students and in developing or facilitating staff training.

Marlene Sorenson, of Zeteo Community Inc., agrees. “Bring in experts on this issue to talk to educators. Social media is one of the biggest tools being used to target vulnerable kids-- kids being recruited from their own homes. We need to work together to spread awareness.”

Sorenson is working to spread the word about human trafficking while planning for a long-term housing community with supports for women who have been sexually exploited, and their children if they have them. In Sorenson’s video about long-term plans for building this housing community, McKenzie, a survivor from Madison, explains how pervasive and damaging human trafficking is the area and the importance of stable housing for women who are exploited and their children.

Available Supports

The DPI includes information for educators on recognizing and responding to child sex trafficking in two online modules on the Mandated Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect. School staff are encouraged to work with their building pupil services staff when they have concerns about sex trafficking because pupil services staff have additional training and expertise in working with youth in abusive situations. All educators and stakeholders can refer to the Wisconsin Child Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Indicator and Response Guide for further help with recognizing warning signs and knowing when to call child protective services.

School staff can provide support to victims of trafficking. Staff can work to form a rapport with students and provide a space where students feel comfortable, allowing a victim to share what they choose to without passing judgment or pressing too hard for information.

For general awareness information and resources to build knowledge about human trafficking, visit the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Wisconsin Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives page.

To report abuse, locate the appropriate county and state agency through the DCF Child Protective Services Agency Contact Information map, or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888).


Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. n.d. “Wisconsin Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives.” Accessed January 2, 2018.

Co-authored with Julie Incitti, School Social Work Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction