Hidden numbers: Accurate picture of trafficking during oil boom difficult, but agencies strive to recognize it
DICKINSON, N.D. — Darianne Johnson and her staff look back at the women who have come through the Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Center in Dickinson and realize some of their clients were human trafficking victims.
But at the height of the oil boom, most people didn't know or suspect trafficking could come to North Dakota. They thought the women were likely just prostitutes.
The reality was many were being victimized in abusive, mind-controlling ways and forced into having sex for money. It wasn't until officers started to conduct prostitution stings that they realized they were uncovering a world of human trafficking.
"We didn't know what human trafficking was until it became the new buzzword," said Darianne Johnson, executive director of the Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Center. "We look back and we know we had a mom who was pimping out her daughter. That was before oil ever got here."
There are no hard numbers on how many human-trafficking victims passed through North Dakota, and until 2016, the state didn't track human trafficking.
The State Attorney General's Office didn't include in its annual Crime in North Dakota report the term "human trafficking" as a crime against persons until 2015, and even now it doesn't track those statistics individually.
On top of that, victims won't or can't admit they were victimized for a number of reasons — shame, coercion, etc. So it's likely officials will never know how many victims were trafficked.
Still, most experts can agree the illegal activity has slowed. Law enforcement, medical staff and anti-human-trafficking advocates are better equipped to recognize victims and give them aid.
But some argue the crime is still a problem in North Dakota and that it is not letting up anytime soon.
"Do I think we have stopped human trafficking in North Dakota?" Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a June interview. The senator has been a lead on federal anti-human-trafficking legislation. "I was sitting today with two law enforcement officials and one told me there were two 14-year-old girls that had been left behind in Dickinson who had gotten messed up with a pimp and were basically human-trafficking victims.
"This is the kind of thing that isn't always on the front page of the paper ... but it's still happening," she said.
Hard to count
Since 2010, the DVRCC has served an estimated 30 human-trafficking victims.
But looking back, the actual number of women who were trafficking victims who came through the facility far exceeded those estimates, caseworker Heather Ingman said. And that isn't counting the calls of service from other communities in the surrounding area.
The Fuse Project, an anti-human-trafficking organization, estimates more than 150 victims were helped in 2014 in North Dakota.
Officers started recognizing some prostitutes were victims when they started doing stings during the early 2010s and they started to tell officers what was going on, Ingman said.
In 2014, 20 of the 55 prostitution cases were aimed at women, according to a Forum News Service analysis conducted for its series "Trafficked."
"Nobody ever thought that when they did the sting for the 13-year-old girl that so many guys would show up that they had to call the sting off," Ingman said.
The words human trafficking appear five times in the 2016 Crime in North Dakota report, while the word prostitution appears 370 times. There were 51 reported prostitution cases with six adult arrests, down from 87 reports and 27 arrests in 2015.
There also were 12 cases of assisting and 14 of purchasing prostitution in 2016. 2015 yielded 34 assisting arrests.
It's not that human trafficking is not a concern in Dickinson, said Dickinson Police Sgt. Kylan Klauzer. But it's not as big as it was during the boom.
"I would say more or less North Dakota was in denial that it was happening here or they didn't want to admit it," said DVRCC case manager Kayla Messall.
The Dickinson Police Department has responded to a few suspected trafficking reports, Klauzer said.
"It's not as big of an issue as it was in the middle of the boom," he said, though he noted underage child pornography is still common.
It does appear the shift has gone from arresting prostitutes to focusing on buyers and pimps, as Klauzer pointed out. The arrests were all female in 2016, but 41 men were arrested for prostitution-related cases in 2015 compared to six women.
"What we want to do is treat victims like victims and not like perpetrators," Heitkamp said of anti-trafficking efforts, including the Abolish Human Trafficking Act.
Still, there is no way to compare true numbers, at least not for several years, said Christina Sambor, director of the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force. Her organization released its first set of trafficking numbers earlier this year, saying there were 79 victims in 2016. All but four were U.S. citizens.
"When you look at things from a statewide perspective, it certainly is still an area that needs attention and we just continually see cases and situations cropping up," she said.
Where to next?
Since human trafficking was brought to the forefront through investigations, arrests and media reports, funding and training has been made available through federal and state agencies.
Lori Hahn, vice president of patient care services for CHI St. Alexius Health in Williston, said medics weren't trained to recognize trafficking during the boom, but federal funding from several federal bills and training from the Department of Homeland Security improved that.
"I think once we had that training ... we've been able to do a much better job of recognizing when some of the people have the signs of human trafficking," she said.
Others feel more can be done. For southwest North Dakota, the DVRCC is the only place for human trafficking victims. It's also a haven for homeless women and children in addition to serving its intended purpose: helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Having different groups of people who have different needs can present complexities and even safety concerns, Ingman said.
"A domestic violence shelter is not the appropriate place for a human trafficking victim, but we are not going to turn away a human trafficking victim, so we house them here," she said. "The needs are drastically different for a human trafficking victim compared to a sexual assault victim."
In a perfect scenario, human trafficking victims would have their own facility, but Johnson doesn't foresee that changing, especially in light of state budget cuts.
Most can agree agencies have made progress with the support of federal and state funding. Those interviewed said emergency responders and medics can recognize the signs of trafficking and act in a more efficient and sensitive manner.
Sambor felt the move to put anti-trafficking efforts into effect have gone relatively quickly.
The next step is to focus on labor trafficking, public engagement and regional efforts to provide long-term and preventative services.
"I think we did a really good job the first time around, but now we are building on that and looking at additional things that we know cause problems for victims, reintegrating into life and how we can do a better job at preventing," Heitkamp said.
By the numbers
79 human trafficking victims found in North Dakota last year
75 were U.S. citizens
2,500 professional trained in identifying victims in North Dakota by the state's Human Trafficking Task Force
Source: North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force and the Fuse Project