RACINE COUNTY — Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a series of bills in support of efforts to combat human trafficking.
But anti-trafficking efforts have been active for years in Racine County, and much of its history starts with Racine’s very own Dominican sisters.
“The Racine Dominicans were instrumental in shining a spotlight on human trafficking early on in Racine when many of us, including myself, were not even aware of the issue,” said Karri Hemmig, founder and executive director of Fight to End Exploitation.
Sixteen years in the making
In 2001, 1 million Catholic sisters from around the world gathered in Rome and vowed to address “insistently, and at every level, the abuse and sexual exploitation of women and children, with particular attention to human trafficking.”
The Dominicans took the declaration to heart, helping to spur human trafficking efforts in Racine County.
“This (human trafficking) kept coming up like a bad penny,” said Sister Ruth Schaaf, who was working as a parish nurse and had an office at St. Luke’s Hospital at the time. She also chaired the Racine Dominicans’ society focus group.
“Somebody said, ‘How do we know we haven’t seen a victim?’” Schaaf said. “That was an eye opener because we began to say, ‘Yeah, what would be some red flags?’”
The sisters read a “Look Beneath the Surface” pamphlet issued by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Rescue & Restore Victims of Human Trafficking campaign, which informed them of the red flags to look for in potential trafficking victims.
One incident stuck out for Schaaf. She was translating for a Hispanic woman who walked into the hospital suffering a miscarriage.
While Schaaf drove the woman home, she refused to let the sister see where she lived. Weeks later, the woman called the hospital, sounding scared and speaking quickly. Schaaf offered to come to her, but the woman refused.
“I realized that she thought I was the person who could figure out what was wrong here and get the right help to her,” Schaaf said. “Three years later, I could have. I couldn’t do it then and that bothered me very much.”
Many of the sisters — teachers, nurses, ministers, social workers in the area — worked with the community and recognized red flags in their own lives.
Their society committee began educating the community about human trafficking. In July 2009, the Racine Dominicans and their associates issued a corporate stance:
“The Racine Dominican Sisters and associates support human rights by opposing the trafficking of women, children and men for sexual exploitation and international works of enslavement. We commit our prayer, study, resources and action to end this criminal activity against our sisters and brothers.”
Racine County Supervisor Bob Miller, chair of the Racine County Board at the time, was a Dominican associate and first to affirm the Dominicans’ corporate stance.
He helped organize a meeting between the Dominicans, county law enforcement agents and social service leaders. They also met with officials at Wheaton Franciscan, now a part of Ascension Health, prompting the local hospital staff to draft its own educational program.
“They (Wheaton) initiated the educational program in all connected hospitals in the upper Midwest and in their orientation for all of their staff members, which was big,” Schaaf said. “Very big.”
In 2013, Sr. Marie Anthony, who had chaired the Dominicans’ Society Committee since 2011, spoke at an event for the Racine chapter of Dining for Women, which is dedicated to supporting women and children worldwide living with poverty.
She shared information about trafficking with the group and met with Hemmig, Dining for Women’s co-leader, and Racine Police Department officers Jessie Metoyer and Neal Lofy, who also spoke at the event.
“And from that night, the task force and the Racine Coalition mushroomed,” said Anthony said. “And I do mean like an atomic mushroom cloud.”
The Racine Police Department’s Human Trafficking Task Force was formed in 2013, and since its inception the Task Force has participated in 10 to 12 operations and rescued nearly 200 human trafficking victims locally.
“They (the Dominicans) were among the first to study the crime and bring it to the attention of Chief (Art) Howell,” Hemmig said.
“With our volunteer staff and others, most notably the Dominican Sisters, we just have this really unique consortium to address it (human trafficking),” Howell has said.
The Racine Coalition against Human Trafficking, now FEE, was formed in early 2014 by Hemmig, who acts as the task force’s victim advocate, and Lofy, who serves as the task force’s lead investigator.
“The nuns were on board from day one as well, and two of them, Sister Jean Verber and Sister Rose Marie Anthony, were original board members and served for several years,” Hemmig said. “We still hold a spot on our board for a Racine Dominican.”
Sister Peg Gabik currently serves as liaison to the FEE board. “Without their early work and support in this area, RCAHT may not have even developed,” Hemmig said.
Keeping a spotlight on trafficking
“It’s the slavery of our time,” Schaaf said. “It’s huge, it’s lucrative. It’s touching everybody. It’s touching our economy, the well-being of our children and young people. It’s totally adverse to our society.”
And while the sisters, police and local advocates have made huge strides in tackling human trafficking, they say more work must be done.
“I think it touches the core of our value system,” Verber said. “It is another gross example of how the position and rights of woman are denigrating and the prevailing abuse of what we see in relation to women. People have to be alert and ready so we can be responsive to their plight.”