Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Editor’s note: This is first of a two-part feature on trafficking education in one diocesan community.

Increasing awareness and prevention of sex trafficking in the Diocese of Superior is one of Bishop James P. Powers’ priorities.

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This year, seventh-grade students in diocesan schools and religious education programs are receiving Shared Hope International’s “Chosen” curriculum as their annual safe-environment training. Comprised of a video highlighting two real-life testimonies and providing information on signs of sex trafficking and other resources, it was part of a packet the Merrill-based Holy Cross Sisters provided to parishes in the fall of 2015.

Peggy Schoenfuss, director of Catholic Formation and superintendent of schools, indicated this grade level includes the age group most targeted by traffickers. Schoenfuss reports many parishes have used “Chosen” materials and/or brought in speakers to provide awareness for adults in addition to presentations for students.

One community responds

Three trafficking presentations were offered in Spooner this fall.

On Nov. 29, St. Francis de Sales, Spooner, offered an ecumenical adult session on trafficking. More than 50 adults attended, including pastors from the town’s Wesleyan and Methodist churches.

Retired State Patrol Sgt. and Department of Justice instructor Brett Heino, the father of four young adults and a St. Francis high school catechist, presented the “Chosen” video and prevention resources.

Heino also shared personal encounters with human trafficking. He was involved with intercepting a group of 30 European sex slaves contracted by a motorcycle gang for a pre-Sturgis rally in a neighboring state; in another case, it was one of his religious ed students, a high school girl who excitedly told him about the modeling contract she’d been offered, that raised red flags.

Other experiences highlighted the need for citizen involvement in the prevention of trafficking. During a traffic stop, his suspicions about a young woman in a vehicle with a man she claimed was her uncle were not enough to hold the girl and dig deeper. In another case, a “nosy neighbor” woman, who noticed a young girl being affectionate with a man she knew was not her father, was able to offer information that allowed law enforcement to take action. It was discovered that the girl was being prostituted by her own mother as payment for drugs the adult male was providing.

“You have more authority, more power than law enforcement,” Heino emphasized. He stressed how manipulative and well-rehearsed traffickers are, often appearing at first as older boyfriends.

Affirming that Northwest Wisconsin is “still a phenomenal place to raise our kids,” Heino told listeners there is a trafficking pipeline between Duluth/Superior and both Chicago and the Twin Cities.

He sought to empower adults with resources that can reduce the vulnerability of children in their lives. He offered tips like teaching teens to be aware of their surroundings and to think critically – by not texting in a dark parking lot while leaving work, for example – and emphasized teens should know that violating their friends’ trust, when in their best interest, is the right thing to do.

Heino spoke of the world young people live in, “where it ain’t cool if media content isn’t mature.”

“Very few parents understand how pernicious, how evil, a lot of the media that our kids are exposed,” he said, referring specifically to Grand Theft Auto 5 and other video games. “Remove that from their world. You have to.

“The last thing we want is to confront, but we have to,” Heino said, stressing the responsibility of parents to monitor the media children are consuming at home and at friends’ houses. He said parents and guardians should have passwords to their media devices and accounts.

“They’re going to think you’re preaching to them, they’re going to think you’re trying to control them, treat them like a little kid,” but he encouraged them to be strong.
“Don’t worry about being strict if it’s for physical and spiritual safety of your kids,” he added.

He shared how what kids are exposed to today, while shocking to parents, is just entertainment to them. And while certain populations are more at risk, Heino confirmed anyone can be lured.

Young men as targets are less talked about, Heino said. But they can be sex or labor trafficked, as was the case with some boys discovered in the region forced to work a marijuana farm with the promise for a “better deal working a migrant farm” later on. Sex-trafficked boys are less likely to tell someone or seek help. And with fewer resources for rehabilitation, they are more likely to stay in the lifestyle or become traffickers themselves.

Heino also gave a handout outlining things to watch for – changes in behavior, lifestyle, peers or sphere of influence – and a list of “take action ideas.”

Speaking later with the Herald, Heino confirmed parents are and need to be the first educators for their children, teaching them virtue, self-respect and respect of others, appreciation of purity and chastity and showing examples of these behaviors at home.

He spoke about the Theology of the Body, which is taught to teens.

“Parents can go a long way towards building that a realistic expectation of sexuality for marriage,” he said. “What’s the real end goal – to be unblemished? It’s those fallings that lead to greater successes in the future.”

Heino said he speaks clearly to his catechism students about saving sex for marriage.

“If you wait for the right person … you will have a level of trust built up like none other,” he added. He encourages valuing the opportunity “for a legitimate second virginity.”

Heino admitted as teens get older, they need to be treated and talked to differently.

“Don’t parent with unexplained restrictions” that heighten their curiosity and natural inclination to rebel and figure it out for themselves, he advised. He spoke of the youths he sees developing into mature young adults, the leadership they exert, and the families they come from.

“Parents need to set the example in their own house,” he said. “Parents need to affirm for their kids, but then also reinforce what is learned at CCD … raising your kids in the faith is truly the answer to how to live life.”

Trafficking and pornography

Spooner Memorial Library hosted a Sept. 12 presentation by Rachel Monaco-Wilcox. A Milwaukee-based lawyer, she founded LOTUS Legal Clinic, which works with human trafficking victims, empowering survivors and through education, advocacy and political initiatives.

She said, “A survey found that most youth who were trafficked said that the one thing that would have made the most difference was if they had one adult in their life that provided unconditional love and support to them. Just one person.”

The Catholic Herald spoke with Monaco-Wilcox about the information and tools parents need to safeguard their own children and their communities from the plague of human trafficking.

From Monaco-Wilcox’s standpoint, young people are overwhelmed by media messages and exposed to sex “to the point where there’s just way too much confusion.” She believes stricter federal communications laws would close some of the channels that leave young people vulnerable to trafficking.

“Focus on education of parents – always a starting ground. We have a culture of passively consuming massive, massive amounts of sexualized selling.” Calling it “the pornographication of America,” she emphasized, “If parents truly understood the big-picture consequences of [this consumption], they would act differently, they would intervene, they would at least have a couple conversations.”

Kids need guideposts, Monaco-Wilcox said, and she encouraged parents to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. Acknowledging not all parents have that level of communication with their children, she said, “If you’ve reached a point where you’re not the right person, then how can you find another trusted adult? You need backup.”

A former professor at Mount Mary University, Monaco-Wilcox would speak with students about media messages and the attitudes they perpetuate. She suggested parents talk about what teens see in commercials, and in the grocery store checkout line.

“Give our kids resilience to cope with what they will be faced with,” she advised.

Further advice for parents: Protect teens, but don’t shelter them too much. And choose what media you consume. Fill your life with different things; find alternate sources of entertainment.

“How are we parenting?” Monaco-Wilcox asked. “You need to start talking with your children about use of the internet, images that they may see, how to have relationships with the opposite sex, how to be an empathetic person and not objectify – because that’s what we’re fighting against – the media constantly objectifies young people and sex … Let’s not just passively absorb this stuff anymore – let’s question it.”

Monaco-Wilcox was one of more than 600 people, primarily law enforcement, who attended the Wisconsin Human Trafficking Conference Nov. 29-30 in Wisconsin Dells.

One speaker at the event, Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane Schlipper, acknowledged that demand [for trafficked persons] continues to be a primary challenge.

Prostitution and sex trafficking are profitable businesses, and Monaco-Wilcox believes the role pornography plays in all of it is underestimated.

“Some parents may not understand that pornography impacts young undeveloped brains in a particularly scary ways,” she said.

Calling these “tricky issues” because adults purchasing commercial sex are statistically ordinary family men, Monaco-Wilcox clarified, “It’s a family conversation – how do we treat each other as people?”