The issue of human trafficking wasn’t always on Mary Gilpin’s radar. But in her work as a volunteer for pro-life causes, especially at the Women’s Support Center of Milwaukee, the Menomonee Falls resident would sometimes observe relationships that didn’t seem quite “right.”
“Women have come in … maybe with an older man who answered all the questions, when they themselves would be more quiet,” said Gilpin. Perhaps the younger woman would avoid eye contact or appear to be dominated by her companion. “The other person would say, ‘We’ve decided this’ about something.”
As she began to learn more about the epidemic of human trafficking, particularly its prevalence in the Milwaukee area, Gilpin began to realize that maybe there was a darker side to those situations than she had ever imagined.
The Respect Life Committee of St. Anthony Parish, Menomonee Falls, of which Gilpin is a member, will host a discussion on human trafficking at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 8, in the church’s Reichling Hall. The presentation will feature speakers Debra Schneider and Deacon Steve Przedpelski, who has been ministering to victims of trafficking through Franciscan Peacemakers Street Ministry for 23 years.
Gilpin said she and the other members of the Respect Life committee feel strongly that Catholics have a duty to care in particular “for individuals whose freedoms are being taken away” — and she’s not alone. It’s an increasingly common issue being addressed by Catholic parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
A March report on the scope of human trafficking in Milwaukee indicated a growing problem affecting some of the most vulnerable members of society. The report, authored by several collaborating agencies, including the Milwaukee Police Department Sensitive Crimes Division, identified 340 individuals (231 of whom had background information available for analysis) ages 25 and younger who were confirmed or believed to be victims of sex trafficking in Milwaukee between 2013 and 2016. Ninety-seven percent of the individuals were female. Nearly half were between the ages of 14 and 17 at their first instance of suspected or confirmed sex trafficking. Fifty-nine percent had previously been reported as missing from out-of-home care (i.e. group homes or foster care) at least once.
“This is modern slavery — it’s part of human concerns,” said Monica Schultz, a parishioner at Good Shepherd Parish in Menomonee Falls. Along with St. James Parish, Good Shepherd has formed an anti-trafficking coalition that has been working to highlight the growing threat of human trafficking for the past several years. The parishes, which are clustered, work with other faith communities to host talks and presentations on the issue, and have even invited Deacon Przedpelski to speak to their high school Christian formation classes.
“This is a social justice issue, and as Catholics, we’ve got to step forward,” said Schultz. “Our motto is, ‘You see something, say something.’”
Deacon Przedpelski said he wishes he could preach on this topic at a different parish in the archdiocese every week. He’s not, but he’s getting close — from West Allis to Fond du Lac, Waukesha to Sheboygan, Deacon Przedpelski is pounding the pavement, visiting parishes to spread awareness about this “modern slavery” and what the Church can do to help.
“It’s a beyond-Milwaukee problem,” he said.
In his more than two decades of work with the Franciscan Peacemakers, Deacon Przedpelski has gotten to know victims of sex trafficking and gained insight into what causes the problem. Typically, he said, the victims have backgrounds of neglect or sexual abuse, and though the majority are from lower-income areas, plenty are not.
“I’ve encountered the daughter of a judge, the daughter of attorneys,” he said. “People have a misunderstanding … that somehow living in the suburbs or being a person of faith gives them this invisible protection.”
The trafficking is usually the result of a toxic relationship between the victim and his or her abuser, who presents himself as a protector or ally.
“They’re literally groomed,” he said. “The trafficker or the guys working for the trafficker will invest time in the relationship with the young woman, getting to really know her family really well, really wanting to build the trust bond. She’ll believe he’s a boyfriend.”
“Traffickers look for vulnerability, and everyone has a vulnerability. It doesn’t really matter where you live,” said Melania Klemowits, executive coordinator at Exploit No More, an anti-trafficking nonprofit in Milwaukee. “I’ve heard a pimp say that he can tell within 30 seconds of meeting a girl if he’s going to be able to get income out of her. Pimps train other guys to read body language and eye contact.”
The relationship progresses to a point where the abuser begins to ask the victim to compromise herself for his benefit.
“He’ll say, ‘Look, I’ve been really good to you, but now I need you to help me. I lost my job, I’m gonna lose my car,’” said Deacon Przedpelski. “Typically, but not always, it begins by trying to get the woman to start stripping for cash in a strip club.”
If the victim resists, violence will be threatened — sometimes to the victim, sometimes to their families.
Exploit No More collaborates frequently with Catholic parishes and churches of other denominations throughout southeastern Wisconsin, offering educational presentations on the subject of human trafficking. Klemowits said that lack of public awareness on the issue is due in large part to the fact that, historically, instances of human trafficking were often mistaken for domestic violence cases, or victims were simply dismissed as prostitutes.
“In the 80s and 90s, children as young as 12 were being locked up for being prostitutes. In reality they were being trafficked — but it wasn’t seen that way,” she said.
The severity of the issue within the Milwaukee area is due to several factors, said Klemowits, including the prevalence of “pimp culture,” where the control of women through violence and manipulation is seen as good business. Another factor is racial and economic segregation, creating isolated communities that historically did not have adequate police protection where trafficking “family businesses” have been cultivated over generations.
“A lot of times we see it passed down from grandpa, dad, son. Young boys are being raised in this, and a young girl is raised to believe she is a sexual object for the family business,” she said.
The best action that everyone, Catholics included, can take to prevent trafficking, said Klemowits, is to share information about it with their friends and family. Not all victims will self-identify as victims, she said, and something as simple as sharing an article on Facebook can help a potential victim to realize she is being groomed or abused.
In that same vein, Schultz and other members of the St. James/Good Shepherd Anti-Sex Trafficking Coalition distributed more than 50 pamphlets with information on trafficking to local businesses during last year’s U.S. Open.
“Education becomes important so parents can be aware that this is going on,” said Deacon Przedpelski.
He said that several times, after he has visited a parish and preached on the issue of human trafficking, someone in the congregation will realize they have been a potential victim.
“There is a teenage girl sitting in church and she’s listening to what I’m describing and she ends up telling mom, dad, a relative or friend she recognizes she’s being groomed. In some cases the girls have had their plane tickets to go somewhere (with the trafficker). That stuns me every time I hear it.”
Experts encourage members of the public to call (1-888-373-7888) or text (233733) the National Human Trafficking Hotline if they observe possible instances of trafficking. For more information on Deacon Przedpelski and his ministry with Franciscan Peacemakers, visit franciscanpeacemakers.com.