Mary C. Uhler and Kevin Wondrash
Madison Catholic Herald Staff
MADISON — Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the country for sex and labor trafficking, speakers told more than 220 persons at Catholics at the Capitol, Tuesday, March 28, at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, Madison.
“Human trafficking is happening in counties all over Wisconsin. It happens everywhere, in rural and urban areas and online,” said keynote speaker Colleen Stratton, a survivor of human trafficking and member of the Eye Heart World Outreach Team.
Catholics at the Capitol is sponsored by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, along with support from a number of Catholic organizations and diocesan offices.
The day is aimed at educating Catholics about important issues of the day and affording an opportunity to pray and work together for the common good in society. The day culminated with the opportunity for attendees to visit the State Capitol and meet with their legislators.
The day began with a morning prayer service with Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison presiding. Bishop Morlino welcomed those attending, thanking them for coming. He told them that the state’s bishops are “grateful to have you as partners,” adding, “I hope that today’s activities will help us grow in solidarity in our great state.”
Human trafficking in Wisconsin
Prior to Stratton’s talk, Sr. Francis Bangert, OSF, from the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, Green Bay, provided an overview of human trafficking in Wisconsin. She said human trafficking is called “modern slavery and a prison without walls.”
As followers of Christ, she said we should respond to this by “proclaiming liberty to captives,” as Jesus himself said was his own mission as he quoted from the words of Isaiah.
Popes from St. John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis have spoken out against human trafficking. “Pope Francis has pledged to work to eliminate human trafficking by the year 2020,” she noted.
Calling it “one of the most pervasive crimes in the world,” Sr. Francis said, “The scope of human trafficking is mind-boggling.”
Sex trafficking comprises about 80 percent of the trafficking, with girls as young as eight years old targeted. The average age is 12 to 14 years old for girls coerced into the sex trade.
In Wisconsin, the Fox Cities, Green Bay, and Milwaukee are areas where much sex trafficking is occurring, although it is happening everywhere in the state.
Catholic Sisters throughout Wisconsin are involved in working to eradicate human trafficking. They have sent a packet to every parish in the state with ideas and resources to build faith-based educational materials.
Planting seeds of hope
Sr. Francis introduced a video called Seeds of Hope featuring Colleen Stratton. It was provided courtesy of Eye Heart World. The video revealed Stratton’s introduction into “the life” as a prostitute, the abuse she suffered, and how she escaped with the help of others.
In her keynote address, Stratton said women involved in sex trafficking feel trapped and share “fear, shame, pain, and loss.”
Yet, she said, “These women need to hear there’s hope for them. These are the very people Jesus came for. God is standing with arms open. He will seek the lost.”
She emphasized that God works through people. “We can all plant the seeds of hope. God will make them grow,” she said.
Stratton talked about Rose Home, which is opening in the summer of 2017 in Green Bay. It is a holistic residential program designed specifically to serve victims of sex trafficking aged 18 to 25. The program will provide room and board, trauma-informed therapy, life skills, and workforce preparation.
Stratton is now married and the mother of two children. “I was once lost, broken, and held captive, but God pursued me with relentless love. He set me free and gave me a new heart for the lost and afflicted.”
She encouraged those attending Catholics at the Capitol to do the same and pray.
For more information about Rose Home, visit www.eyeheartworld.org
How to end human trafficking
Practical ways to end human trafficking were discussed in a breakout session. The presenter was Emily Anderson, communications director of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother from Oshkosh.
She referred those attending to the website of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking (www.sistersagainsttrafficking.org)
To stop human trafficking, Anderson said, “The first step is to educate ourselves about this problem. It is vital that we protect our children.”
She noted that 800,000 children in the U.S. are reported missing each year, with 26,000 missing in Wisconsin. About a third of those become involved in sex trafficking.
Who is at risk? Anderson said they include children from broken homes and families, the homeless, runaways, those with a history of abuse, those who are disconnected and isolated, the mentally or physically disabled, those in the child welfare and justice systems, and those involved in drug abuse.
Adults at risk include those who were abused as children, are dependent on drugs and alcohol, and those who are mentally or physically disabled.
Sex traffickers, she said, seek the “most vulnerable,” finding them in schools at malls, in parks, on the streets, or online.
Labor traffickers often post jobs online and target low-income persons and immigrants. They offer false promises and keep people near-prisoners on farms and in businesses.
Anderson said society must raise awareness of human trafficking, educate law enforcement, and enact tough laws.
She said citizens should educate themselves and others, volunteer to help victims, advocate with lawmakers on the state and national levels, and report suspicious activity.
To request help or report tips, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or the Wisconsin Victim Helpline: 800-446-6564.
Immigration policy and families
In a breakout session, attorney John David from Catholic Charities in the Diocese of La Crosse discussed recent changes in immigration and refugee policies and examined what the Church can do to accompany families and ensure basic human rights.
David said there is a lot of fear among immigrant families today because of changing policies. “People want to protect themselves and their families,” he said.
He pointed out that of the 11 million immigrants currently residing in the United States, about one-third have a U.S. citizen in their families. “We don’t want our families to be torn apart,” he said.
He said it is important for immigrants to understand their rights. He distributed a red card with information in English and Spanish (available at https://www.ilrc.org), which summarizes the rights of immigrants.
He encouraged people to urge their federal lawmakers to support the Bridge Act (the successor to the Dream Act), which would help hundreds of thousands of young immigrants remain in the U.S.
On the state level, David encouraged people to oppose Assembly Bill 127, which would unnecessarily limit the ability of local governments to discern how to engage immigrants. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference opposes this bill.
Challenges of poverty
One of the breakout sessions was called “The Challenges of Poverty.”
The speakers were Sr. Patricia Rogers, OP, a Sinsinawa Dominican from the Dominican Center for Women in Milwaukee, and Jayne Stewart, from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul-St. Joseph Conference in Rice Lake in Barron County.
The discussion was moderated by Barbara Sella, associate director for respect life and social concerns for the WCC.
Stewart talked about poverty from a rural perspective, saying “isolation” was the biggest challenged faced.
She said those in poverty typically have others in poverty in their social realm so there is little support there and they do not have access to “well-meaning role models” that can help them deal with poverty.
“Most of the world in work and education is built on middle-class standards,” Stewart said.
“In this country, we tend to believe there is something wrong with someone in poverty,” she added, noted shame can be an issue to deal with as well.
Some other barriers that isolate people in poverty Stewart said was a criminal background — that can hinder someone from getting employed — mental health problems and addictions, and lack of transportation.
“We can’t get our people to the very agencies that want to help them,” she added.
Both women shared some of the solutions being used to help people in poverty.
Stewart talked about the home visits that the St. Vincent de Paul conference does in her area.
“We go into the homes of people and see the conditions that they’re living in” and determine how to help them get out of poverty.
They are also implementing systemic change or “looking for the root causes of people’s poverty.”
She mentioned a job program that helps people find employment and also hiring people at their thrift store. She also said the conference has a microloan program to help people with small amounts of money, which all have been paid back in full.
Talking with lawmakers
After all of the day’s events, Kim Wadas, executive director of the WCC, encouraged attendees to go talk to their lawmakers at the State Capitol building to discuss current issues and their importance to Catholics.
“We have a unique voice in this state,” Wadas said about Catholics, of which there are 1.4 million in the state.
“Together as a Church, we have an amazing ability to contribute to the conversation that shapes public policy in Wisconsin,” she added, saying one big takeaway from the day is “don’t undervalue your voice.”
Before the conference came to an end, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee spoke a few words to the attendees.
He hoped someday that about a thousand Catholics would go over to the Capitol following the conference.
“We can do that,” Archbishop Listecki said and encouraged everyone to invite more people to come to the next Catholics at the Capitol in 2019, saying it would “really make a statement.”
“Don’t fail to educate yourself and educate others,” he added.
Bishop James Powers of Superior gave the final blessing.
For more on the Wisconsin Catholic Conference and current issues, go to www.wisconsincatholic.org