BISMARCK – Those fighting human trafficking in North Dakota brought their efforts to the Capitol on Wednesday.
Lawmakers have proposed a package of bills addressing law enforcement to detect trafficking and rescue victims, and resources for women and girls once they are freed.
Five bills were heard Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with two more expected to be presented next week. Law enforcement officials, domestic violence advocates and representatives of anti-trafficking groups testified in support.
“With this awareness that’s being created and the education that law enforcement is receiving now, and the community’s response through education and awareness, now we’re starting to see victims be identified,” said Windie Lazenko, founder of 4her North Dakota, a Williston-based organization that rescues victims. “But what do we do with them now?”
In 2014, state and federal prosecutors charged seven people with offenses related to sex trafficking or felony facilitating or promoting prostitution, but many expect that number to grow as the public becomes more aware and law enforcement learns how to handle the cases.
A bill aligning North Dakota’s laws with the uniform act for human trafficking would decriminalize prostitution for minors, commonly referred to as Safe Harbor. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and others say the law change treats victims as victims, which creates a better chance of them helping in the case against their pimps.
Besides decriminalizing for minors, the law increases penalties in some cases, like recruiting a victim from a shelter, and mandates that rest stops and hospitals post the National Human Trafficking Resource Center phone number.
Committee Chairman Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, questioned the broadness of proposed immunity for minors for not just prostitution, but forgery, theft and non-sufficient funds check offenses if the crimes were committed “as a direct result of being a victim.”
South Central Judicial District Judge Gail Hagerty, who helped craft the bill, explained how far-reaching a pimp’s control can be.
“Young people are put in situations where the people they are depending on are actually coercing that behavior,” she said. “They are required to come back with so much money at the end of the day.”
Melanie Heitkamp of Youthworks of North Dakota, a nonprofit that operates shelters in Bismarck and Fargo for at-risk or runaway youths, recounted a story about a minor victim who was put in jail, and how that hindered efforts to build trust with her and help her.
“Safe Harbor will allow my workers to provide a consistent message to victims they work with – that they are indeed victims and they will be treated accordingly,” Heitkamp said.
Another proposal would allocate $1 million for the Department of Human Services to dispense as grants for victim services like crisis centers, direct care and advocacy services.
“We have people in our state whose lives have been destroyed by others,” said Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, who sponsored the bill. “It’s about providing hope.”
A top priority for the funds is a shelter specifically for trafficking victims – many now end up in already overwhelmed domestic violence centers, which aren’t trained or equipped to handle those cases.
Dever said funding would focus mostly on Williston, Stark County and Cass County.
Some trafficking victims have tried recruiting other victims in domestic violence shelters, advocates say. Heather Ingman, an advocate at Dickinson’s domestic violence center, told lawmakers the center has helped an estimated 13 victims of trafficking in the past two years. Three, they suspect, were traffickers themselves, including a mother they suspected of trafficking her daughter out of the shelter.
For most victims, the trauma they suffered at the hands and mind games of their pimps requires very nuanced treatment for which domestic violence shelters were not designed to address.
Ingman noted there’s little, if any, addiction counseling available, and the last time she checked, there was a six-month wait for an initial intake for mental health care in Dickinson.
The trafficking victims need to be “delicately handled,” she said, but “those services are not readily available.”
The North Dakota Catholic Conference introduced amendments to this bill and the uniform law that would prohibit state funds from being used for abortion, or for counseling in favor of abortion.
The changes would ensure “state-funded victim services are conducted in manner consistent with state values,” said Stacey Pfliiger, an associate with the Catholic Conference.
Dever said he considers it a friendly amendment to his bill.
As other proposed legislation aims to increase awareness and prosecutions of trafficking, advocates said the money, with which a shelter is top priority, is needed so the victims have a place to go once they’re identified and rescued.
“Our goal is to work with victims on all these bills,” Stenehjem said, “to work our way up the ladder to prosecute these traffickers.”
No one testified in opposition to any of the bills.
Three other bills had little testimony. They would create a human trafficking commission, increase the statute of limitations for prosecuting trafficking, and increase the penalties for convicted traffickers.