By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Now that Jenny Almquist has seen human trafficking first-hand in Thailand, she is even more committed to fighting what is known as the fastest growing trade on the planet.
Almquist is a Colfax resident and is the founder of Fierce Freedom, an organization that educates people about the sex-slave trade, human trafficking, and the exploitation of women, men and children abroad and in the United States.
Almquist and her team of eight other women worked with the Thrive Rescue Home in Pattaya, Thailand. They left for Thailand late last December and returned to Wisconsin in January.
Pattaya is known as the sex industry capital of the world
“It was important for us to see that so much of what happens there is because of Americans. It was just packed with American men, to be honest with you. We educate on human trafficking, and we focus locally,” Almquist said.
“The age of the girls is ridiculous. They advertise for infants for sex over there,” she said.
And while we would like to think that kind of thing is not happening in the United States, it does happen.
“A couple of weeks after we came back, they made an arrest in Florida of a whole ring of drugs and sex trafficking. It always goes together. And they were selling infants,” Almquist said.
But Thailand is on the other side of the world, and Florida is a long way from Wisconsin, so surely human trafficking is not happening in Dunn County.
“We would never want to think that anything like that was happening in Colfax. And I’ve never heard anything like that. But we really have to take a look at our culture and see that things are not as we would like to think they are,” Almquist said.
“We’re right on (Interstate) 94. It’s been documented. There a triangle between St. Louis and Minneapolis and Chicago,” she noted.
Several online sex stings in recent years in West Central Wisconsin and Minnesota, where law enforcement officers posed as young girls, have netted a number of arrests.
In addition to a 110 degree Fahrenheit difference between Wisconsin and Thailand in January, there were other differences as well.
“The lives of all of us on the team were changed forever. We got to go into a slum two different times. Because of the money we were able to raise, we were able to buy a whole pig and have a pig roast. And we fed the whole slum,” Almquist said, noting that Thrive Rescue Home periodically hosts a free meal in the slums of Pattaya.
“The reason Thrive likes to do that quarterly is so they can do a count. They make relationships, and when there are young ones that are gone and missing, they are able to notify law enforcement to keep an eye out. Because of that, they’ve been able to rescue some little girls that are now (in the Thrive home). It was really amazing to be part of that,” Almquist said.
One woman who came for the pig roast walked across a swamp to get there.
“We asked how far she had come. She pointed. And there was a huge swamp. Probably a quarter mile across. She said she walked through that. She said she was lucky because she didn’t get bit by any snakes this time,” Almquist said.
“I can’t imagine what it would take for me to do that, to want to get to the other side for food, for company, for fellowship. We as most Americans could never really understand that. It was a different perspective, that’s for sure,” she said.
Fierce Freedom now has a partnership with Thrive Rescue Home, so Fierce Freedom is planning to go back to Thailand again with a leadership team and possibly bring a law enforcement officer along to talk to law enforcement there, Almquist said.
Red light district
Almquist and her team members visited the “red light district” of Pattaya, too.
“It’s called Walking Street, and it must be a half mile long. And that’s where I thought we were in a whole different world. It felt like we were walking on Mars,” Almquist said.
“Little girls who were (being sold). You would see the person who was selling them on the side of the street. And here’s this little girl performing – gymnastics or hula-hooping or doing things to attract attention. There would be spotters. And the whole mafia thing that surrounds it, because it’s such a high dollar business. It was unlike anything I have ever seen … the depravity of the world in front of us. It was quite unbelievable,” she said.
“The important thing is that there are good people doing good work. But the other thing that’s important is, this is an addiction,” she said.
“And an addiction is an addiction. We talk about freedom and being free, but the people trapped in (human trafficking) and the addiction to it. Addiction is slavery to the addiction. How important it is to look with eyes of compassion, which is not easy to do. How are we, as a culture, going to address that,”Almquist said.
“We, as an organization, say that all people have dignity. When we come across people who are exploiting men and women, boys and girls, it’s a journey for us too, as we try to figure it out and look deep inside,” she said.
One of the women from Thrive who partnered with Almquist’s team in Thailand is now living with the Almquist family in Colfax.
“Thrive is growing and successful. But they didn’t have a presence in the United States. No one on the ground in the United States,” Almquist said.
“It’s been a lot of fun. She brings a different perspective. She’s on the ground rescuing little girls. She brings a different perspective on situations in the office. She is willing to jump in,” she said.
The Thrive team member goes back to Thailand periodically, but the organization plans to maintain a presence in the United States indefinitely, Almquist noted.
Human trafficking looks different in Thailand, and that difference makes it harder to spot in West Central Wisconsin.
But different law enforcement agencies also classify what is really human trafficking or prostitution under different labels — and that makes it impossible to gather statistics for West Central Wisconsin.
“When people call and ask us to give them statistics for western Wisconsin, there’s absolutely nothing we can give them. Just the counting from county to county is so different,” Almquist said.
“Part of the discussion is realizing (human trafficking) is prostitution. We call it different things. We might have called it domestic violence … when the arrest was made, it was checked as domestic violence. Then there’s mental illness. That piece almost always plays into it on one side or the other. There is nothing that is black and white,” Almquist said.
Under Wisconsin law, if the child is under 18, there is no such thing as a child prostitute. The child is being trafficked, she said.
“It’s re-educating law enforcement and our society,” Almquist said.
“I don’t know of anybody we’ve talked to, if you asked them what they dreamed about being when they were little, would say they dreamed of being a prostitute,” she said.
“The statistic is that 92 percent of men and women caught in prostitution are actually trafficked — 92 percent have absolutely no choice in the matter. They don’t have control of their own body. They don’t have control of their own finances. They couldn’t leave if they wanted to. Therefore, they are trafficked,” Almquist said.
In our society, we most likely associate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with combat veterans or other people who work in traumatic situations, such EMTs or firefighters or law enforcement officers.
People who have been trafficked often suffer from PTSD, Almquist said.
The 92 percent of men and women in prostitution who have no choice in the matter have “levels of PTSD of those of combat war,” she said.
“We would just love to say, ‘oh those prostitutes. They have a choice in the matter. They’re just doing it to earn big money.’ There’s something about our human nature we would like to believe that, to look down on them, to cast stones. We have to look at it differently now. People are talking about it differently,” Almquist said.
“It’s comfortable to stay in our prejudices. It takes work to get out of our prejudices,” she said.
“What we do know is that 50 percent of the time when we talk to any group, we encounter someone who has been affected by sex trafficking. That’s the one statistic we know,” Almquist said.
“It’s such a huge monster, and if you’re already overworked and understaffed (in a law enforcement agency). But we are here to say we will help with whatever you need … we have the people, the resources, the training … we have a fantastic training we are developing, actually that is already finished, with the Eau Claire Police Department,” she said.
Almquist said that Fierce Freedom would be happy to provide the training to any law enforcement agency, and that Eau Claire County is willing to share their resources as well.
When nine people were arrested in an online sex sting last fall in Eau Claire County, there were 5,000 phone calls, e-mails and texts expressing interest in the one individual being “offered,” Almquist said.
“You can’t say it’s not an issue when there are 5,000 wanting to buy that one 13-year-old girl,” she said.
According to news reports, it was the second child sex trafficking sting in Eau Claire in a year. Law enforcement officials noticed online interest in child prostitution on websites such as Craigslist. The nine men who agreed to meet the officers who were posing as children were subsequently arrested.
Call for help
If you suspect someone is being trafficked or you come across a situation that does not seem right to you, call 911, Almquist said.
People also could call the anonymous Crimestopper tipline and say that something does not feel right and that you want someone to check it out, she said.
Or you can call Fierce Freedom at 715-514-2890, and someone in the office will report the situation, Almquist said.
On one recent trip to a restaurant in Eau Claire, Almquist said she and several other Fierce Freedom staff members were worried about a young girl with an older gentleman. The girl seemed quite upset, and it appeared she had been crying. The situation just did not feel “right” to them, she said.
So, the group asked the waitress if she knew the young girl and the older gentleman. The waitress said she did not but that she also thought there was nothing wrong.
As it turned out, one of the other waitresses at the restaurant was involved with Fierce Freedom, had taken the training, and was able to talk to all of her co-workers about what to look for at a restaurant and who to call.
If the young girl in the restaurant were being trafficked, it’s quite possible no one would have ever seen her again, Almquist said.
Since the Interstate runs through this area, restaurants might be the most likely places that you could see someone who is being trafficked, she noted.
Almquist acknowledges that it can be difficult to make that telephone call based on your suspicions because people, especially in the Midwest, often do not want to make trouble for someone else.
But still, if you believe something does not feel right, it is important to make a telephone call, she said.
Almquist said representatives for Fierce Freedom are willing to talk to any and all groups. School groups. Women’s groups. Church groups. Law enforcement. Youth groups.
“We have a lot of experience talking to groups … If you would listen to us, we would love to talk to you,” Almquist said.
A wealth of information is available on the Fierce Freedom website as well, including a list of questions you can ask if you think someone might be trafficked.
“Everything you need to know you can find on our website. We say copy, paste, take anything. We educate. That’s what we do,” Almquist said.
For more information, visit www.fiercefreedom.org.
The Fierce Freedom office is located in Eau Claire at 1280 W. Clairemont Avenue, Suite 5.
Fierce Freedom has a Facebook page as well.