Children in Milwaukee Group Homes at Risk of Sex Trafficking

For children in out-of-home care, the risk of sex trafficking is all too real. And in Milwaukee, a city that has become known as a hub for sex trafficking, the data is startling—especially for children who have spent time in group homes.

According to a new report, an estimated 340 individuals were confirmed or believed to have been sex trafficked in Milwaukee between 2013 and 2016. The report, released by the Milwaukee Police Department in partnership with other organizations, focused on data from 231 of those individuals based on the availability of demographic information. Here are some of the key findings from the report:

  • Gender: The majority (97% or 225) of the individuals identified were female.
    Race: Almost two-thirds (65%) of the individuals analyzed for this report were Black/African American, and nearly one fourth were White.
    Age: Over half (54%) had an indicator of trauma (such as sexual assault, domestic violence, or child abuse) at age 15 or younger.

Furthermore, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, police reports and social service providers in Milwaukee have noted that recruitment for sex trafficking often happens in group homes. According to data from the report, 62% of confirmed trafficking victims had been reported missing from out-of-home care.

“These numbers are shocking, but not surprising,” said Eric Thompson, lead attorney for Children’s Rights representing the Jeanine B. class of Milwaukee children in state care. “We have previously discussed individual cases with the Division of Milwaukee Child Protective Services, but these carefully compiled data and recommendations compel a robust system-wide response by the state.”

Considering these staggering numbers, the report advocates for special safety considerations when placing survivors of sex trafficking in out-of-home care. One suggestion is to consider moving survivors outside of their own communities if doing so would minimize their risk of future harm: “There should be explicit consideration for placement of survivors of sex trafficking who are in the child welfare system, and if it is safer to keep them in their communities or to place them far away from where they were exploited.”

Another tactic is to improve communication between group homes and the Milwaukee Police Department. According to Milwaukee Police Captain Aimee Obregon, the Police Department is currently working to make it easier for group homes to report when a child goes missing so that police can intervene earlier.

Finally, the report recommends considering alternatives to group homes, such as specialized safe homes with trained professionals equipped to support survivors of sex trafficking. According to the report, there is currently one specialized safe home in Milwaukee providing individualized care for juvenile survivors of sex trafficking. Programs such as this should be evaluated and expanded.

Sex trafficking is not limited to Milwaukee—it is a national problem. Across the U.S., between 50% to more than 90% of children who were victims of child sex trafficking had been involved with child welfare services. That is why Children’s Rights is actively working to ensure all kids have a healthy, safe space to call home.

“Children who have experienced trauma and are in search of a family are at risk of being sex trafficked, and traffickers know this,” said Elizabeth Pitman Gretter, Senior Attorney at Children’s Rights, who is currently working with partner organizations to create approaches for reform. “These risk factors are only exacerbated when child welfare systems don’t do their part to make sure the children in their care receive the supportive, trauma-informed services and placements they need.”