Commercial Sexual Exploitation is a growing problem in the US and our local community. Research has shown that prostitution, previously and widely viewed as a business of consent between adult individuals, has now become, in fact, a form of human slavery. Most often, victims are enslaved in “the life” due to desperate circumstances (which most often began in a sexually abusive or violent home) and/or the victims have been tricked, coerced, or held against their will and violently forced into performing sexual acts live or on screen. Our highly sexualized culture lures men, boys, and some women to fuel the demand side of this equation as situational, addictive, or sadistic users of these victims.
This modern day form of slavery, often called “sex trafficking”, most commonly preys upon vulnerable young people between the ages of 12 to 24 and is a multi-billion dollar business in the US. Entrepreneurs, including gang members, internet site providers, and sadly even “trusted” friends and relatives, have found a “product” that costs them little and can be sold over and over again. This crime, and the tragic deception underlying it, brings deep trauma and loss to all individuals involved – the victims, the users, and even the traffickers. All who are touched by this issue require justice, mercy, and compassion, along with practical help for healing and restoration. Due to the early age of entry and the extensive damage done to body, soul, and spirit, the victims often require a stable long term residential program with comprehensive services that promote healing, teach life skills, and restore to them to the life they were created to live.
In April 2011, a group of concerned individuals, led by Kathi & Ron Hesselgrave and Janet Kenny, began investigating this growing problem. They found this is not just an issue overseas; in fact it is US issue and is right in our own backyard. Based on the findings below and there being no services in Lake County at the time, Suzanne Baker Brown joined the group as Executive Director in 2014 and Stepping Stones Network was formally launched in October 2014.
- Chicagoland is a major hub for sex trafficking with an estimated 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls exploited annually. Men and boys are also exploited.
- In Illinois, there are fewer than 40 residential beds available for victim recovery.
- Statistical and anecdotal evidence indicate a presence of exploitation and user activity in the northern suburbs of Evanston/Skokie, Mt. Prospect, Gurnee, and Waukegan. For example, in January 2015, 19 men were arrested in an undercover trafficking sting in northern and southern Lake County. Sheriff Mark Curran says, "I think it's important to go after the johns...Many of the woman in prostitution are not there willfully. Essentially they are victims by virtue of force or drug addiction.”
- The safety of our children is at risk as well. In July 2014, the Lake County Sheriff's Office hosted a seminar called “Human Trafficking: Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children” to call attention to the growing problem of the trafficking of youth in Lake County through gangs and other predators.
- In 2017, the Lake County Human Trafficking Coalition was formed led by the State's Attorney's office, with Stepping Stones Network as a key representative, along with other organizations such as A Safe Place, LEAD, YWCA, Zacharias House, etc.
- A Safe Place is now providing an emergency bed for rescue situations and Stepping Stones Network is in the process of implementing a residential restorative program to help victims of sex trafficking become survivors and rebuild their lives.