by Ariele Vaccaro
The prevalence of human trafficking in Milwaukee struck Dana World-Patterson when she, an etiquette and image consultant at the time, asked a room of high school girls if they’d ever been touched inappropriately.
Fourteen of the fifteen girls present raised their hands. She would later find that some of these girls had gone to family members for help only to be turned away or ignored.
Why would World-Patterson dare to ask such a personal question?
“I noticed that girls were increasingly angry,” she said, recalling that they would sometimes lash out at school.
What may have seemed like just a hunch turned out to be an unfortunately true observation.
Milwaukee girls as young as eleven were being sexually harassed and subsequently coerced into the human trafficking industry, which reaps about $150 billion per year, according to World-Patterson.
That’s a considerable jump from the $32 billion it pulled in during 2013.
After becoming aware of this egregious reality, World-Patterson took it upon herself to enact change and empower people with the resources to free themselves from a dark, underground industry known as human trafficking. She took part in the founding of Milwaukee’s Human Trafficking Task Force and became the group’s chairperson.
The task force has been seeking solutions, instilling confidence in young women, and spreading awareness of sexual and labor related human trafficking in the city for almost seven years. World-Patterson has witnessed men, women, and children from all backgrounds benefit from the task force’s efforts.
She recalled the story of one woman in her forties, who had been a victim of human trafficking since age 14.
The Milwaukee resident visited a monthly task force meeting.
She was taken aback by the efforts of people like World-Patterson.
“And how she hugged me, just, ‘I didn’t know you all were here’,” said World-Patterson.
“That was powerful and very encouraging.”
However, World-Patterson still sees common misconceptions of human slavery and trafficking clouding the public’s impression of the issue, making it more difficult for judges to prosecute pimps and for doctors to identify victims.
”It’s not just prostitution,” she said.
And since many victims look like students, parents, or workers, World-Patterson finds some people are convinced human trafficking isn’t an issue for a city like Milwaukee.
To show the public the prevalence of human exploitation in their community, the task force launched its Unlucky Thirteen campaign last year.
The name? It’s a nod to the average age that children become targets for trafficking. And World-Patterson is seeing that number steadily lower.
According to Unlucky 13’s website, 98 percent of trafficking victims are women.
Seventy-eight percent are African-American. And an overwhelming majority, 79 percent, of all of the state’s human trafficking incidents take place in Milwaukee.
However, that’s not to say that the issue is solely a Milwaukee one. Human trafficking has been documented in every county in Wisconsin.
World-Patterson sees a lot of work to be done yet, but she is encouraged by increased attendance to the task force’s monthly meetings and by the medical and judicial fields’ dedication to seeking out victims more pointedly.
“I think that’s powerful,” said World-Patterson.
She also feels a sense of success with every victim who escapes the grip of their trafficker and goes on to live a happy, healthy life.
“I do know that lives are being changed, that survivors are being saved, that many have moved from victim, to survivor, to thriver,” she said.
The task force urges those who suspect that they or someone they know is being trafficked to call the Madison Police Department at (608) 261-9694, Milwaukee Police Department at (414) 933-4444 or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1 (888) 373-7888.