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Services for ND human trafficking victims at risk of being cut

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Melanie Heitkamp, executive director of Youthworks, testifies in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday morning in the state capitol in Bismarck. Seated at left is North Dakota attorney general Wayne Stenehjem, and at right is Diane Zainhofsky of the Abused Adult Resource Center in Bismarck. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune3 / 3

BISMARCK — When "Kristin" arrived at the YWCA Cass Clay in Fargo last year after being a victim of sex trafficking for years, her mental health and chemical dependency were spiraling out of control.

She was hostile to staff, trusted no one and could not control her outbursts of anger.

But after seeking mental health counseling and spending three months in the YWCA's housing program, Kristin now lives in the community, has a job and was proud to get her driver's license.

YWCA CEO Erin Prochnow shared Kristin's story with North Dakota legislators recently, urging them to continue investing in services for human trafficking victims to help them become survivors.

"We believe that without shelter, housing and supportive services, women would not be able to escape the life," Prochnow said. "They would be trapped along with their children."

Grants approved by North Dakota legislators in 2015 launched several new programs to help human trafficking victims. But those services are now at risk of being cut due to the state's tight budget.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem requested $1 million to support victim services for the 2017-19 biennium, but the state Senate cut that funding in half. Stenehjem said more money is needed and he plans to work in the second half of the legislative session to get additional funding.

"We don't want to give up on what we've already done and what we've already got in place," Stenehjem said.

North Dakota's oil boom brought a heightened awareness of sex trafficking in the state, but the slowdown in oil activity has not prompted a reduction in human trafficking cases, officials say.

The North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force, established last session by the Legislature, served 79 suspected victims of human trafficking in 2016, including 26 minors, said Christina Sambor, former director of the task force.

"I don't think these numbers will go down," said Sambor, also director of FUSE, the state's anti-trafficking coalition. "I think they will continue to go up as more agencies get better at identifying. We will continue to need these resources."

Many victims local

Communities large and small across North Dakota were affected by human trafficking in 2016, either because victims were from local communities or the exploitation occurred locally, Sambor said.

The YWCA housed 22 victims of human trafficking last year in new apartment units that were supported in part through the state grant dollars, Prochnow said.

Nearly all of the women had local ties, with 15 victims from Fargo, two from Minnesota, two from rural North Dakota and two former North Dakotans who were trafficked out of state, according to testimony from Prochnow.

The apartments, which opened last February, are the first housing units in North Dakota dedicated to human trafficking victims and were used all but a handful of days in 2016. The program also provides food, clothing, child care, education and employment services, counseling and transportation assistance.

Youthworks, the state's runaway and homeless youth program, served two teenage victims of human trafficking last year who were from North Dakota towns with populations less than 1,500, said Executive Director Melanie Heitkamp.

One of the girls, identified by someone at school who recognized the warning signs, was trafficked by her mother, Heitkamp told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Youthworks shelters in Fargo and Bismarck house human trafficking victims up to age 22.

With support of the state grants, Youthworks established "host homes" to provide emergency housing to trafficking victims in rural areas.

The agency licensed five host homes that have sheltered 13 victims for 306 days, Heitkamp said. Three more homes are going through the licensing process.

ND a 'profitable' market

Sex traffickers all over the country promote North Dakota as a "profitable and accessible market," said Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent Scott Betz in written testimony for legislators.

Organized crime networks are bringing meth and heroin to North Dakota, along with women who are being trafficked, Betz said. The criminals sometimes use heroin to recruit local women into the trafficking rings, he said.

"There is enough activity in North Dakota that in my opinion, most local law enforcement agencies could keep a full-time agent busy working just human trafficking cases," he said.

Betz, who is assigned to the state Human Trafficking Task Force, has opened seven human trafficking investigations since last March.

He said the cases are more time-consuming and complex than other crimes, including homicides, and he relies on regional "navigators" to help his investigations.

The navigators, positions funded through the state grant dollars, help connect victims with services so they're better able to assist law enforcement.

"This helps the victims, who are often in crisis, but also builds trust and helps us build the relationship necessary to gain their assistance with our investigations," Betz said.

In 2015, North Dakota legislators showed such strong support for funding human trafficking victim services that they added another $250,000 on top of the $1 million requested.

This year, although they indicated unanimous support for the programs, the state Senate reduced the funding to $500,000, citing the revenue shortfall. The House still needs to consider the proposal, which is Senate Bill 2203.

"I know they're committed to the program," Stenehjem said. "It's just a question of how much money we can obtain this session with the budget being what it is."

Windie Lazenko, who serves victims of sex trafficking and exploitation through the nonprofit 4her North Dakota based in Williston, said she hopes grant dollars will be used toward education, specialized training for law enforcement and increased outreach to tribal communities. Lazenko doesn’t think $500,000 will be enough to cover the needs.

“Sex trafficking is still a very serious problem in North Dakota that is now affecting community kids,” Lazenko said.

Services key to prosecution

The programs are crucial to helping victims recover and successfully prosecute traffickers.

"Every single case we have, we are utilizing our victim services," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Puhl, who handles human trafficking cases in eastern North Dakota. "I'm convinced we wouldn't have cases without them."

Without victims willing to testify, prosecutors have a difficult time proving the elements of force, fraud and coercion that are required for sex trafficking convictions.

"The victim is the only one that can talk about why she did it," Puhl said. "If I don't have a victim or I don't have a cooperative victim that's going to talk about the climate of fear, I don't have a human trafficking case."

A federal sex trafficking case involving five victims is scheduled for trial this April in Fargo.

Anthony Donte Collier faces six charges in U.S. District Court, including sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion and attempted trafficking of children.

Collier, known as Koleone The Great, is accused of recruiting vulnerable women and one juvenile to engage in prostitution in Minnesota and North Dakota, court records show. He was originally charged in Clay County, but the case was transferred to federal court.

The investigation was prompted in part by Facebook photos showing Collier, who was on parole, holding a "young lady on a leash" and "large sums of cash," court records show.

The conspiracy involved a business called BGI Promotions LLC, registered with the North Dakota secretary of state to conceal the illegal activity, court records allege.

Court records show Collier, in a handwritten motion, disputes the allegations and claims his business provided "managerial services" for adult entertainers and exotic dancers and the contracts forbid prostitution or lewd acts.

His brother, Antione Dominique Collier, also accused of being involved with the operation, pleaded guilty in federal court to a conspiracy charge. He will be sentenced in May.

Arrests of women increase

Stenehjem and other members of the Human Trafficking Task Force say they believe women engaged in prostitution are likely not doing so willingly and should be treated as potential victims.

"That's been a shift in our attitude. We want to assure people that what we're trying to do is go after the traffickers. In order to do that, you need to assure the victims that we're not going to prosecute them," Stenehjem said. "Sometimes they're not only the best witness, but they're the only witness we have."

But court records show arrests of women engaging in prostitution increased in 2016 after declining in 2015.

Eleven women were charged with misdemeanor prostitution in 2016, a review of court records shows. In 2015, four women were arrested in North Dakota for prostitution, according to the state's annual crime report.

The 2016 arrests occurred in Bismarck, Watford City and Minot. Some of the cases stemmed from hotels that called police to report suspected prostitution while others surfaced from investigations involving police who contacted women who were advertising on Backpage.com, court records show. A few of the women also had drug charges.

Stenehjem said he was not familiar with the specifics of those cases. He said law enforcement is trained to attempt to connect potential victims with services, including contacting the regional navigators.

In 2016, the task force provided "technical assistance" on 277 occasions to law enforcement, victim service providers and others who were working with a suspected case of human trafficking.

Federal push for training

At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has reintroduced legislation to ensure that health care providers have training to identify and protect victims of human trafficking.

The Stop, Observe, Ask and Respond to Health and Wellness Act, or SOAR Act, is bipartisan legislation from Heitkamp and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Heitkamp said the training is critical because first responders and other medical professionals often have the opportunity to identify and rescue potential victims if they can recognize the warning signs. The legislation would expand a U.S. Health and Human Services pilot program, which already trained nearly 60 health workers in New Town and Williston in 2014.

"When we talk with people whose families, unfortunately, have been victimized, a lot of times they talk about the need to educate the medical community," Heitkamp said.

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