Groups rally to take a deep dive into human trafficking prevention

·3 min read

Sep. 14—Superior's Human Trafficking Task Force is pulling stakeholders together to combat sex trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation and labor trafficking in Douglas County.

The team of 12 organizations, which includes Superior High School, the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse, Northwood Technical College, the Douglas County District Attorney's Office and North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, dove into SOAR training, provided by the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center, Aug. 19. The group intends to draft a joint community action plan next week.

The plan will focus on policies and legislation that need to change, according to task force member Laura Gapske, director of programs for Men as Peacemakers. That includes pushing for Wisconsin to pass a Safe Harbor Law, which protects young people age 18 and under from getting criminalized for prostitution. Minnesota has had a Safe Harbor law since 2014.

Wisconsin legislators have introduced Safe Harbor bills in both the state Senate and Assembly, but they have yet to pass.

Task force member Tatiana Bergum said Superior already provides such protection for young people who have been exploited. The lack of a state law can drive trafficking across state lines, however. That's part of what prompted her to seek federal funding for the SOAR training in Superior.

"Over three years ago when I started in my role, I was seeing youth getting exploited over the bridge," said Bergum, Safe Harbor program coordinator with North Homes Children and Family Services. "The laws are different in Wisconsin, like Laura said, and predators and traffickers know that."

Raising awareness is another plan goal. Trafficking is not just an issue in urban areas, Bergum said. It's just as prevalent in rural areas.

"There's been cases of trafficking happening in our community," Gapske said. "And so we want to get the message out that it is happening here, and we plan to raise awareness in the community about how to notice signs of trafficking, and how to safely report or intervene so that it doesn't put survivors at further risk."

Northwood Technical College is already working on putting signage in campus bathrooms providing contact information — resources for survivors as well as where to report suspected trafficking. Gapske said the team aims to put additional signage in public areas and offer training on what signs of human trafficking may look like to hotel staff and employees at places where young people congregate, such as Walmart.

"Wherever you have youth, you'll have people kind of essentially wanting to prey on those youth," Bergum said.

Places where youth work can also serve as a line of defense against trafficking.

"To be able to have a relationship with not only the workers, but the business owners. To be able to send youth to a safe place to work, where they won't experience maybe harassment or, you know, essentially exploitation ... That's the goal is to have that true community response versus the system's response," Bergum said.

SOAR training is based on a public health approach to trafficking. It is driven by prevention efforts, and also offers ways to provide support and resources to survivors.

The group is seeking support from the Douglas County Board and Superior School District. Gapske, a Superior School Board member, has penned a resolution in support of Safe Harbor legislation in Wisconsin that was set to be presented at the Monday, Sept. 13, school board meeting.