Special Report: Teens living in group homes, foster care at higher risk for sex trafficking
MILWAUKEE COUNTY (CBS 58) -- Sex trafficking is happening across the Milwaukee area everyday and one of the most at-risk groups is teens living in group homes and foster care.
On Milwaukee’s Southside, 22nd and Greenfield is known area for prostitution, but what community advocates say most don’t know is that many of those people are actually trafficking victims.
“Milwaukee is known across the country for a place to come get your pimp training,” said Jarrett Luckett, the executive director of Exploit No More, a nonprofit working to combat trafficking. “It’s often referred to as a mecca for sex trafficking.”
One of the most vulnerable groups is those teens living in foster care, group homes or other out of home placement, referred to as unaccompanied homeless youth.
“They’re out on their own and there’s no parent or guardian with them,” said Dr. Aimee Obergon, a researcher and former commander of the Milwaukee Police Department’s Sensitive Crimes Division.
In a study, Dr. Obergon found from 2013 through 2016, 85 minors in out of home placement were victims of sex trafficking. And she says the real number is likely higher.
“We have a lot of victims that just won’t come forward and say they’re being victimized,” Dr. Obergon said. “Or maybe don’t even realize they are a victim. Some of them will develop a relationship with their pimps that they think is a boyfriend girlfriend relationship.”
Most of the teens were also victims of other crimes—including sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence.
The study ran through 2016. CBS 58 Investigates looked through court records from 2017 through February of 2019 and found at least 7 other potential victims. Including three 15 year old girls, who left their Milwaukee high school to go to social services to complain about their placement. On their way they met Kyjana Lezine.
According to a criminal complaint, the girls told police, over the course of two weeks Lezine forced them to do drugs, have sex with him and took pictures of them and posted them online “so that they could go on prostitution dates.” When one of the victims tried to leave, she says Lezine punched her and threatened to kill her.
Lezine is charged with multiple felonies, including trafficking a child. He is set to go to trial this summer.
“If they truly believe the threats that the traffickers are telling them, that they could die or that their family could die or they will get beaten, their survival instincts kick in,” said Dawn Jones, a retired Milwaukee Police Lieutenant who investigated the first sex trafficking case prosecuted in Wisconsin.
Experts say one of the biggest problems is that sex trafficking victims, even minors, are often treated like prostitutes.
“It’s not against the law to cite and charge a minor with prostitution, even though they are not consensually able to consent to sex by law, it’s a paradox,” said Rachel Monaco-Wilcox, who founded the Lotus Legal Clinic.
Assembly bill 41 would change that. The so called “Safe Harbor” legislation would outlaw citing minors for prostitution. More than 30 other states have already passed similar laws. The bill has bipartisan support, but is still pending in the legislature.
“Decriminalizing I think is very, very important,” said Gov. Tony Evers (D-Wisconsin). “It sends a message that this is not going to be tolerated. It points out where the problems exist and they exist with the adults that are trafficking these young people.”
Monaco-Wilcox founded the Lotus Legal Clinic, which provides free help to victims of sexual assault and trafficking. She says a prostitution conviction keeps victims from getting jobs and housing, but there is some help.
“The big piece of statutory law that we have is the ability to vacate a prostitution conviction for a survivor of sex trafficking,” Monaco-Wilcox said.
Monaco-Wilcox wants the laws to go further and is helping draft additional legislation.
“We want to change our law so that we’re covering all of the potential crimes that might have occurred that somebody might of committed during the time they were trafficked,” Monaco-Wilcox said.
Dr. Obergon’s report also made recommendations to help those vulnerable kids including more in-person interaction between case workers and kids, alternatives to group homes and more education about the problem in schools and in the community.