MADISON (WKOW) -- It's become a crime that the general public often doesn't see. Madison Police continue their battle against prostitution. These days, it usually starts on the internet instead of the streets.
Madison Police officers say a recent focus on human trafficking has opened their eyes to how these kinds of crimes impact the community. It's sparked a unified response to not only make arrests, but help the women involved.
"The sites that they're using, the avenues that they're using, we know what they are," Sgt. Shawn Engel says. He and Detective Kymtana Woodly have recently worked on prostitution stings.
"A lot of times, the women in these positions, they're able to leave that type of lifestyle if they have the support," Woodly says.
The officers say they can't go into detail about their investigations so that criminals won't adjust to their methods, but they did tell WKOW about a unique sting set up in January.
"When the girls were arrested, we gave them the option, either take the citation or we have people here from these two organizations who are willing to sit down with you and connect you with anything you need to get you out of this lifestyle," Woodly says.
Those five girls took that option on the spot at a Madison hotel. Woodly says one of the organizations involved was Project Respect.
"However a person gets involved in prostitution, we are here to help them get out," Project Respect Executive Director Jan Miyasaki says. According to their research, on any given day, there are at least 10 to 15 websites that are advertising posts from more than 300 women in our community.
"The internet has made prostitution and sexual exploitation even more dangerous than it had been in the past," Miyasaki says.
"When you're on a site, or any kind of prostitution, it's like, you feel your worth depreciate over time," a 30-year-old Madison woman says. She asked us not to identify her, because she knows that feeling first hand.
"I came from a pretty well to do family," she says, but started being sold for sex at 15 years old. She worked as a prostitute until she was in her mid-20s.
"I did it on my own, because I was working a minimum wage job and it just wasn't covering everything," she says.
Years after being victimized as a teen, minors being used for sex is getting more attention from local and state officials. Detective Woodly says it was a sex trafficking investigation last year that opened her eyes.
"It was mind boggling, ya know, the different facets, how complex human trafficking really is," Woodly says.
"Sexual exploitation of youth is a problem in Madison. Exactly the scope of it, to be honest, we're not sure. Part of the reason we're not sure is because were just now starting to realize that we need to count these kids," Briarpatch Youth Advocate Jen Burkel says.
Slave Free Madison reports more than 200 victims of trafficking have been identified in Wisconsin. Burkel works to help Dane County kids get out of these dangerous situations.
"I do know that we expected, two, three a year. I started the year with a case load of 10," Burkel says.
She joins the force of police and organizations like Project Respect, hoping to bring the number of people in our community being used for sex down.
Burkel says, "We need to figure out how to meet the needs of these kids better than the traffickers or the pimps are, and if we can't do that, were going to keep counting more kids."
"I think its gunna take the police department working with these other social agencies to hopefully give the women the support that they need," Engel says.
For the woman who did get support from Project Respect and was able to create a new life, she has a message for others. "There's help out there and it's not worth it."