The Walworth County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council (ICC) held its first meeting of the year on March 26. The ICC is an organization comprised of the chief elected officer of each town, city and village located in the county as well as the county board chairman. The group was founded in 2007 for the purpose of promoting cooperation among different units of government. It meets three or four times a year at the Government Center in Elkhorn.

ICC agendas typically cover topics that are of interest to local governments. Meetings feature speakers from organizations who share the common mission of improving the quality of life for Walworth County residents. Our most recent meeting featured a presentation from Pam Carper and Lisa Otterbacher of the Walworth County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force.

Pam was a founding member of the group. Lisa joined the effort after a 28-year long career in law enforcement. She was the chief of police for the City of Whitewater until her retirement last year. Lisa informed attendees that human trafficking is not just an issue in big cities, but is present in Walworth County as well. To underscore her point, she cited a recent case that had occurred in our county.

Lisa refuted a number of myths about human trafficking, including the following:

  • Trafficking always involves physical force. The most pervasive myth about human trafficking is that it always, or often, involves kidnapping or physically forcing someone into a situation. In reality, most human traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor. While victims are sometimes physically unable to leave their situations, more often than not people in trafficking situations stay for reasons that are more complicated. Some lack the necessities to escape, such as transportation or a safe place to live. Some are afraid for their safety. Others have been manipulated to the point where they do not realize that they are under the control of another person.
  • Only women and girls can be victims and survivors of sex trafficking. Studies estimate that as many as half of sex trafficking victims and survivors are male. Some advocates believe that this percentage may be even higher because male victims are far less likely to come forward.
  • All human trafficking involves commercial sex. Lisa reported that experts believe that there are actually more situations of labor trafficking than sex trafficking. While there is a much greater awareness of sex trafficking in the United States, labor trafficking cases have been reported and prosecuted in industries including restaurants, cleaning services and factories.

Lisa had a number of tips to combat human trafficking. Parents need to be especially vigilant. Talking to your children is the first step. While they might not be at risk of becoming a victim, they may know someone who is. Classmates who have recently withdrawn from school activities, have a significantly older boyfriend or are chronically running away from home may be exhibiting signs of human trafficking. Social media is another concern. The internet provides an easy way for predators to contact teens.

New apps, which permit photos and other data to be shared, are constantly being developed. Traffickers lurk on social media sites to learn details about potential victims. When they later approach their victim with this personal information, they are far more likely to be able to strike up a relationship and begin the process of isolating the child from family and friends. Periodically checking children’s cellphones or even collecting them before they go to bed each night are two ways that parents can deter human trafficking.

Fortunately, awareness of human trafficking is increasing due to efforts of organizations like the task force. A number of innovative efforts have been launched nationally, including the S.O.A.P. project. That initiative places the phone number of an anti-human trafficking hotline on the wrappers of soap bars that are placed in hotel rooms. For victims who have limited access to the world outside of their captivity, the hotline has proven to be a lifesaver.

To learn about other anti-trafficking programs or to support the effort here in Walworth County, check out the task force’s Facebook page. The address is @WalCoAntiHumanTraffickingTaskForce.

Lisa’s final piece of advice for the evening was simple: If you see something, say something. Trust your instincts. Worry less about whether you are wrong and more about how you might be saving a life in reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement. “Red flags” that someone is being trafficked include living and working at the same location for little or no pay. Victims may appear to lack the ability to come and go and may have no driver’s license or identification card. Victims are sometimes unable to clarify where they are living, share scripted, confusing or inconsistent stories about their circumstances, or have lost their sense of time.

You can learn more about the ICC by visiting our webpage at www.co.walworth.wi.us. Just follow the link from the “County Board” home page. The webpage includes back issues of the committee’s newsletter, “Neighbors,” as well as examples of cooperative efforts that are taking place throughout the county. Our next ICC meeting is scheduled for June 25 at 6 p.m. in the Government Center in Elkhorn. Meetings are open to the public.

David Bretl is the county administrator for Walworth County. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.