ALLOUEZ — A moment of exuberance brightened an otherwise somber evening discussion on human trafficking Jan. 11 at St. Matthew Church.
At the opening prayer of “A Light in Darkness: Hidden in Plain Sight,” which included addresses from a law enforcement officer and a trafficking survivor, the gathering of more than 125 people offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the rescue of 13-year-old Jayme Closs. The Barron County youth, who was kidnapped from her home Oct. 15 after her parents were murdered, was rescued Jan. 10 near Gordon, Wis.
Jayme is a member of St. Peter Parish in the Diocese of Superior, where she attended religious education classes and Mass with her parents, James and Denise. Their funeral Mass was celebrated at the Cameron church Oct. 27.
While it is too soon to know if human trafficking was a motive in the northern Wisconsin case, her rescue offers hope to others who are victims of human trafficking, said Holy Cross Sr. Celine Goessl, one of the event organizers.
Sr. Celine told the gathering that awareness of human trafficking is the first step in ending it. “You can’t help get rid of it if you don’t even know it’s there,” she said.
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and the evening program offered ways to identify and report possible trafficking victims. Information tables greeted guests in the church’s gathering space.
Sgt. Greg Tilly of the Brown County Sheriff’s Department gave the audience an overview of law enforcement’s response to human trafficking, which typically involves prostitution.
He said Brown County deputies have been focusing on human trafficking since 2015, but only one officer is assigned to the problem. “People ask, why aren’t there a bunch of cops working on human trafficking investigation,” he said. “We only have so many people and, quite honestly, a human trafficking case, from start to finish, is just labor intensive.”
Sgt. Tilly described working on the case of a young woman taken into custody for prostitution. “She was trafficked all over Wisconsin and she’s from Denmark (Wisconsin),” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are from, because it’s everywhere.”
He said women trafficked for sex often have tattoos. “It’s like marking your property,” he said, referring to traffickers. Sex traffickers use the internet to find customers, said Sgt. Tilly. “It’s as simple as ordering a pizza,” he said. “You just call, tell them where you are at and they show up.”
Sgt. Tilly said deer hunters in northern Wisconsin see signs of sex trafficking without knowing it.
“Every time I go deer hunting, there’s always flyers out that there’s dancers at the bars. Those are girls that are being trafficked. A lot of them,” he said.
In response to a question, Sgt. Tilly said parents can start the conversation about human trafficking with their children “when you feel your child is at that (appropriate) age and understands.”
“If they know about sex, then you should be talking about it. I talk to my daughter, who is 9, about drugs and alcohol and why it’s bad, and we talk about bad people.”
He suggested parents watch a video, “Innocence Sold,” from 5-stones.org. It features three short films: one describing the story of a high school student lured into sex trafficking; one featuring her trafficker; and one from her friend’s viewpoint. It was filmed in the Fox Valley and is available for viewing on the 5-stones website. “It’s an incredible movie and meets all the educational requirements by the State of Wisconsin and is designed for (middle school) and high school students,” said Sgt. Tilly.
Morgan Meadows, 59, shared her personal story about being trafficked between the ages of 3 and 23. She has teamed up with Sr. Celine and Holy Cross Sr. Kathy Lange for a series of trafficking presentations around Wisconsin.
Meadows described her abuse starting with her stepfather taking pictures of her and other children. “I was experimented on psychologically and physically from 3 to about 10,” she said. “Even now at age 59 I still have memories pop up from those years.”
She was transported to different locations and sexually exploited from 13 to 23 and forced into marriage at age 17. “I broke away at age 29 from my husband,” she said. “It was a self-rescue.”
“There’s reason to hope and there’s a lot that you as community members can do,” Meadows told the group.
“When I heard about Jamye (Closs) this morning, I celebrated the courage of that 13-year-old girl who took the risk of her life (to escape) after all of the trauma she’s been through,” she said. “So for her, she may wind up feeling responsible for her parents’ deaths, even though she is not, because of the psychological trauma that it created.”
She told the audience to become educated about the different forms of trafficking and urged people to visit the Polaris Project website, polarisproject.org.
“I think sex trafficking is easy to spot,” said Meadows. “It’s the other forms of trafficking that you may not really know could be happening. You can educate your children how to be an outstanding bystander. By educating them on how to speak up, you also protect them.”
In an interview following the prayer service, Meadows said that as awareness grows, the questions she hears change. “In the beginning the response was much more fear based,” she said. “Now it’s becoming more activist based – what can we do right now.”
Meadows said working with Sr. Celine and Sr. Kathy has been “a true blessing for me.”
“This is an intimate subject. It is painful for a lot of people,” she said. “I feel it’s the faith-based organizations that are going to have more of an influence in the ending of trafficking.”