The Bakken's dirty secret: Sex trafficking has growing presence in Oil Patch, experts say
WILLISTON, N.D. - The trafficking of women and girls as young as pre-teens is a growing problem in the Oil Patch, where law enforcement are dealing with a new kind of monster and advocates say resources are lacking.
Law enforcement, victim advocates and congressional officials met in Williston on Monday to talk about the growing problem of trafficking in the region, including how to notice when it's happening. On-the-ground law enforcement officers need to know the signs, even on a routine traffic stop, and how to assist victims instead of arresting them for prostitution, panelists said at the Williston Area Recreation Center.
Law enforcement are working to recognize the signs of trafficking. And it can be hard in western North Dakota, where this type of urban crime is unfamiliar for local officers.
A North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent who took part in the roundtable discussion and requested his identity be kept confidential because he works undercover to catch trafficking, said training of law enforcement in detection is a big area for improvement in the state.
"It's a learning curve," the agent said. "It's so horrific that the faster we can learn this and act on it, the better off all of us will be."
North Dakotans' niceness can get in the way of seeing or reporting the trafficking, experts said.
"We're all very North Dakota nice here, I think, and would like to believe that this isn't happening," said Paula Bosh, a victim specialist with the FBI in Minot. "Once you see it, you don't unsee it. It's very much there."
As oil production has skyrocketed, so have job opportunities that bring men and money.
Now local communities are finding that along with that comes sex for sale.
But victim advocate and trafficking survivor Windie Lazenko emphasized Monday that pimp-controlled prostitution and trafficking are much more common than prostitution by choice.
The panel discussed ways businesses, including oil companies and the hospitality industry, can help detect trafficking alongside law enforcement.
North Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Gary Orluck, who oversees the northwest part of the state, said the NDHP is trying to train officers on detecting the crime and asking the right questions on a traffic stop if something doesn't seem right. He said while the NDHP does not investigate this type of crime, it can be on the frontlines of catching it, at possibly "the one time that we can actually save somebody right there on the stop."
"Our troopers are making literally hundreds of traffic stops on a weekly basis," he said. "... Minor traffic stops do lead to major investigations."
Different forms of trapping victims
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said since starting "To Catch a Predator"-style stings about five years ago, his office has found that kind of crime happens right in North Dakota, committed by newcomers and long-term residents alike.
The traffickers themselves, however, can be parts of national or even international crime rings, which is why law enforcement officials stressed collaboration Monday.
"It's not something that the local people or the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation can do themselves," Stenehjem said.
Reps. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., hosted the roundtable. Both have been involved with sex trafficking legislation on a national level.
Fellow North Dakota delegate U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has also worked on the issue. She's hosting a training session on identifying trafficking with representatives from the trucking industry, the hospitality industry, schools and local organizations on Friday in Fargo.
"A lot of people think this only happens in faraway countries," Paulsen said Monday. "The truth is, it's happening right in our backyards."
The trafficking comes in different shapes and sizes.
A popular recruitment method now is for traffickers to promise women overseas a good job and education here, only to take away their papers and identity when they arrive, said Mike Powell of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations division.
"Now they become literally slaves," he said.
Or, traffickers scan MySpace and Facebook, looking for vulnerable young girls -- victims can be as young as under 12 years old -- who would easily fall for the idea of a boyfriend, the undercover BCI agent said.
The trafficker promises to take care of her and then entraps her into the trade, he said.
Even if the victim is rescued from traffickers and johns, lack of adequate resources makes it easy for her or him -- experts emphasized females and males alike are victimized -- to return to that life, Lazenko said.
A long-term goal for Lazenko's Williston-based 4her organization is a 30-day crisis center with at least six beds.
When the victims are safe and can build a relationship with advocates and law enforcement, they're more likely to divulge information that can identify their traffickers and allow prosecutors to build a solid case, multiple panelists said.
Lazenko herself was a victim of trafficking. At the time, she said, there was no awareness or services available to help her, even though she was exhibiting every sign of sexual abuse and trafficking.
Now, after seven months with 4her, she has helped 10 victims with tangible services and intangible support. If nothing else, she'll take a girl home with her to give her shelter. It's not the best scenario, she admits.
"But what are you gonna do?"
Those who think they may have witnessed trafficking can call the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888, or text to 233733.