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RACINE COUNTY — Shelter Director Cherie Griffin remembers getting her first call about a human trafficking victim a few years ago, after a clerk working along the Interstate encountered a woman in need of help.

That call wasn’t the last.

As local police have started to focus on investigating human trafficking cases, the need for a safe place for victims has continuously come up.

“There are so many services they need,” including extensive counseling and a safe place to stay, said Racine Police Sgt. Jessie Metoyer.

That need for victim assistance is an issue that community members have been starting to discuss in hopes of finding a more permanent solution, or a “safe house,” as Sister Rose Marie Anthony, a Racine Dominican, calls it.

Right now, when officers encounter trafficking victims, they try to return victims to their families. If that is not an option, as in many cases, then officials work with shelters such as the Women’s Resource Center and Safe Haven, Metoyer said, but ultimately there needs to be a more long-term place for victims to stay up to a year or more, if needed.

Community involvement

Sister Anthony, who lives at the Siena Center and is part of a committee of nuns that has been studying human trafficking, is one of the women looking into this issue along with some members of a local group called Dining for Women.

They, along with the Dominicans, recently met with area officials, including shelter directors, to discuss what can be done. The general consensus was that there needs to be a more permanent shelter for these victims, said Karri Hemmig, who founded the local Dining for Women chapter, which raises money for programs that help women and girls throughout the world.

Griffin, the Women’s Resource Center’s executive director, said she has seen an increase in the number of women coming to the shelter who have been exploited in the sex trade.

It’s not the same as the domestic violence the center typically deals with, “but it’s definitely abuse against a person,” Griffin said.

She said she gives law enforcement credit that they are recognizing those forced into human trafficking as victims, not criminals.

Metoyer couldn’t quantify how many human trafficking victims Racine police encountered, but she said it’s a growing problem and last year the Racine Police Department formed a task force to address it locally.

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Long-term help needed

After victims are rescued, the women typically can only stay 45 days at the Women’s Resource Center with a possible 30-day extension, Griffin said. There needs to be a place for victims to stay longer if needed, for instance, if someone has to stay in the area to testify for a case, she said.

Similarly at Safe Haven, a youth shelter in Racine for kids age 10 to 17, youth can only stay up to two weeks, said Pamala Handrow, the shelter’s executive director.

Handrow, whose shelter has also helped victims of sex trafficking, agreed there needs to be somewhere more long term, but she said she doesn’t know what that would be like exactly.

Some places offer “host homes,” she said, which is like a type of foster home for youth who have been victims of trafficking. But she said there may need to be a high level of security to protect the victims, who may need to testify in court cases.

“I don’t know what the needs are and I guess that is what we are all trying to figure out,” she said.

At this point, community members working on this issue don’t have any answers about where to establish a safe house or how long it could take. It’s at the initial stages, but Metoyer, who is also a member of Dining for Women, said a need exists.

“Anytime could not be too soon,” Metoyer said about establishing more help for trafficking victims.


WHAT IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING?

A human trafficking victim is anyone who has been forced into labor or sex trades by someone exerting power over him or her. Milwaukee is one of the top spots in the country for human trafficking, and it’s happening in Racine County, too. Some traffickers bring in victims from other areas and some come here looking for victims.

Source: Cherie Griffin, the Women’s Resource Center’s executive director

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