OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – State representatives on the Speaker’s Task Force on Human Trafficking heard testimony from local law enforcement members and experts on what type of legislation would be useful for them and their agencies as they combat the issue across the state.
“I think it’s an issue in every community. It’s impacting communities all over our state.” Det. Brandon Kehoe of the Sheboygan Police Department said. “We’re hoping to get some legislation passed to make it illegal, making it a criminal offense, to harbor a runaway juvenile.”
Kehoe spoke at length in front of the committee, chaired by Rep. Jerry O’Connor. It was the third of a series of four meetings in which the task force, comprised of 15 members. The final meeting will be held in two weeks, in which a plan of action for legislation is expected to be created.
Kehoe was joined at the testimonial table by Sheboygan Co. Child Protective Services intake social worker Beth Heilman, who shared the same opinion that a bill needs to be created to criminally charge those harboring runaways and likely committing sex trafficking crimes.
“As part of Child Protective Services, we see runaway youth all the time,” she said. “We’re trying to get a bill to go through legislature to be able to give criminal charges to people that are harboring runaways.”
Heilman said that she gave all the insight that she could, and now it is up to the committee to make a determination about it so that criminals can be held accountable.
“We’re kind of just waiting for these meetings to go through before we can really see action,” she said. “It’s really important for us to make sure they’re safe and to take away the places they feel safe to go to but aren’t actually safe homes, and make sure that those people are held accountable.”
Kehoe said that runaways and sex trafficking are not automatically connected, it is the result for far too many.
“Our runaway population is generally one of the highest at-risk to human trafficking and other crimes,” Kehoe said. “We’re finding homes in our community are enabling runaways to basically stay there and subsequently there are offenses that take place like child sexual assault and other things like that.”
Kehoe is hopeful that strong legislation will be passed after giving his testimony, which comes from experience that most politicians do not have.
“What we see is obviously very different than what legislators may see that goes on in the state, so it’s important to hear from people dealing with these issues on a daily basis,” he said.
There currently is no legislation that allows for those who harbor youth to be charged.
“We want to see them get charged so that they know that it’s not ok, otherwise it’s just like a slap on the wrist and they just let more runaways come in,” Heilman said. “Local law enforcement only can give them a citation, and for people that are frequent to criminal activity, a citation doesn’t mean anything. So we really need something that’s going to make a difference.”
Law enforcement at the meeting agreed that human trafficking impacts communities across Wisconsin, and also that it can spike at various times, namely from large events that draw thousands of people into their communities. Sporting events, concerts and conventions were mentioned as examples.
“When we have large events in town or anywhere in the state, the pimps or traffickers realize that there’s a large event in town, so they’ll increase the advertising and opportunities for this human trafficking to occur,” Capt. Jeff Brester of the Green Bay Police Department said.
Brester also said that with the NFL draft coming to Green Bay in 2025, GBPD is meeting with police departments of cities that have hosted the draft in the past to discuss strategies to mitigate sex trafficking.