What can be done about sex trafficking, a $9.5 billion business

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- The reality is frightening. 90% of runaways become part of the sex trade business -- and most are coerced within 72 hours of running away. If that isn't concerning, the average age is between 12 and 14. According to the U.S. State Department, human trafficking is a $9.5 billion business.

A support group of women sat in a circle at Convergence Resource Center in Milwaukee reflecting on where they have been and where they are now.

"I still find myself stuck in some areas as far as trusting people and that's really hard for me," Laura Johnson said.

Johnson and the other five women are survivors of sex trafficking. Each of them became victims of the sex trade as children.

These women are now adults, but they still have painful memories of how they got caught up in sex trafficking.

Delisha Moore says her boyfriend threatened to leave her if she did not sell her body.

"So that was hard for me but I did it. And it just kept getting worse and worse and worse, and for nine months I went through it," Moore said.

April Bentley was 14 years old when she was lured into the sex trade. With a home life in shambles, she spent time with a woman she looked up to -- a woman who became a surrogate mother or sister. That friend betrayed her trust, getting Bentley to agree to help a man down the street.

"'That's all he wants you to do is make him some breakfast. He's going to give you $200,'" Bentley remembers her saying. "I even said to her, 'he's a grown man.' You know, I didn't want to be down there by myself but she went on to say, 'do you trust me?' And I did trust her," Bentley said.

There are many other stories of betrayal, and some girls have even been kidnapped. In Plymouth, a teenage girl was found wandering the streets in the middle of the night after she was allegedly taken to a home there to have sex with a man. The man accused of being her trafficker has been charged.

In Milwaukee, two people were charged for allegedly kidnapping a 13-year-old girl. She was able to get away -- but not before being sexually assaulted and harassed to "work the streets."

There have been multiple cases of human trafficking in every single county in Wisconsin.

"So a typical youth who walks out of their house for whatever reason has a big target on their back. They might be at the mall and they might be solicited at the mall. They could be just walking down the street and be asked if they need a ride," Arney said.

So what can be done about it?

Helping young people get out of the trade takes resources. Pathfinders Milwaukee offers temporary emergency shelter to young people trying to escape the sex trade, as well as other programs.

"It's incredible how much these youth need. We help them make that adjustment. We teach them some skills that will help them get employment. That will help them get into a housing program, get back into school so that they can finish and have a high school diploma or a GED and go on to college," Cathy Arney, Pathfinders Vice President of Community Programs said.

Arney says Pathfinders needs additional housing.

State Representative LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) came up with a caregivers bill for sex trafficking that including housing -- but she says it sits dormant after the agency expected to implement the housing portion of the plan came up with a price tag of $7 million to provide housing for approximately 77 young victims from Milwaukee alone.

"Unless you can find the resources or the money basically to cover the cost, it will continue to sit," Johnson said.

The Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee and its many volunteer agencies are trying coordinate several initiatives to address human trafficking. But there's a desperate need for funding, and the need for housing goes beyond children. It includes housing for children who are now adults coming out of the trade, many with children of their own.

Arney says in about six months, the task force hopes to put together a comprehensive list of resources citywide for victims of sex trafficking who need help, to be accessed through the 211 phone line and electronically.

To reported suspected human trafficking activity call 888-373-7888.