In 2011, a Dane County group called Project Respect began talking to social workers, law enforcement, and the courts about preventing young girls from being exploited for sex. Now those groups are coming together to address the problem.
Like many counties around Wisconsin, Dane County has no teen shelter. This prompts some abused teens to go back to abusive homes or find a way to survive on the streets. It's there that Jen Burkel says vulnerable youth can become victims of human trafficking. Burkel is with Briarpatch Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin.
"According to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children the majority of homeless and at risk youth are approached by pimps within 48 hours of landing on the streets," she says. "They work fast. We have to work fast too."
Neither the district attorney's office nor the sheriff's department could quantify the problem in Dane County. Across the nation, there are 25-hundred open cases involving human trafficking. Most are for sex. But Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney says there are also cases where immigrants are trafficked for their labor, sometimes not fed or paid properly.
"It's to believe that in 2013 we continue to allow victims to fall prey to slavery," he says. "And it is. It's slavery."
In April, officials from the U.S. Attorneys office and state Department of Justice will hold a summit on human trafficking. Dane County officials say its a complex problem that people may not believe exists in Wisconsin. They say awareness will be the first step; followed by alternatives for vulnerable teens and prosecution of traffickers.