WILLISTON, N.D. — U.S. Reps. Kevin Cramer and Erik Paulsen joined North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in a call for more legislation to combat human trafficking.
The three met with law enforcement officials and organizations working on the issue of human trafficking in Williston. While the state’s oil boom has brought prosperity and high population growth rates to the area in recent years, it has also brought prostitution and human trafficking — issues that Stenehjem, Cramer and Paulsen say need to be urgently addressed.
“A lot of people think this happens only in faraway countries outside of the United States,” Paulsen said. “The truth is, it’s happening in our backyards.”
Paulsen and Cramer have attached their names to a number of bills in the U.S. House aimed at combating human trafficking.
Stenehjem said North Dakota requires assistance on the federal level to combat trafficking as “these are not localized enterprises, these are nationwide, even international.”
Stenehjem said the top priority is not treating victims of human trafficking as defendants. By putting safe harbor laws in effect and withdrawing the threat of arrest, he said, victims of human trafficking are more likely to come forward and give information that can be used to pursue traffickers.
Windie Lazenko, a victim of human trafficking as a teenager and the head of 4Her North Dakota, an organization that provides assistance to victims of sex trafficking, echoed these calls.
When victims of sex trafficking are sent to jail for prostitution they are likely to “suffer revictimization and run the risk of running back into the life where they’re just going to be caught up in the cycle over and over,” she said.
Lazenko also called for the establishment of a shelter for victims of human trafficking. Currently, they can be put up in domestic violence shelters, but these facilities are already strained by an increase in domestic violence that has come with the population growth.
Paula Bosh, a victim specialist with the FBI’s Minot office, said that identifying the signs of human trafficking can be difficult coming from a “North Dakota nice” mentality that makes many hesitant to accept that this kind of activity is occurring in the once-quiet state. Realizing that trafficking is occurring in the state and educating people about the signs of human trafficking are key to combating it, she said.
“People want to talk about it, but nobody really wants to or knows how to report it,” Bosh said. “We hear a lot of anecdotes, we hear a lot of stories, but we don’t hear anything fact-based that we’re really able to hang criminal charges on.”