Feds award $1.5 million to help human trafficking victims in ND

WILLISTON, N.D. - A $1.5 million federal grant announced Thursday to combat human trafficking in North Dakota will fund two new positions to help victims in a state that reports serving 150 trafficking victims in 2014.

WILLISTON, N.D.– A $1.5 million federal grant announced Thursday to combat human trafficking in North Dakota will fund two new positions to help victims in a state that reports serving 150 trafficking victims in 2014.

The U.S. Department of Justice grant will fund two regional "navigators," one stationed in Fargo and one in Minot, to help human trafficking victims connect with services.

The dollars, awarded to the North Dakota Attorney General's Office and the North Dakota Council on Abused Women's Services, also will support proactive criminal investigations and includes a mandate to focus on labor trafficking as well as sex trafficking.

The grant is the first dedicated funding to serve human trafficking victims in North Dakota, where the commercial sex industry and human trafficking cases have risen along with the influx of oil activity.

North Dakota domestic violence shelters and other nonprofits reported serving 150 human trafficking victims in 2014, including 16 youth, according to the grant application.

The regional navigators funded through the grant, positions modeled after a system Minnesota recently adopted, will serve as a point of contact for victims who need help, as well as coordinating with law enforcement and other victim advocates in the state.

"It really decreases the amount of hurdles victims have to jump through to receive services," said Janelle Moos, executive director of CAWS North Dakota, which represents the 20 domestic violence programs in the state.

The new positions could be filled before the end of the year, Moos said.

CAWS will receive $900,000 from the grant, plus an additional $100,000 from the Department of Justice for victim services. The North Dakota Attorney General's Office will receive $600,000.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said his office will use funds to train and equip specialized regional teams to investigate and target human traffickers operating in North Dakota.

The federal dollars will be used in conjunction with the $1.25 million allocated by the state Legislature for victim services, which have not yet been distributed.

Christina Sambor, an attorney who will head a new North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force established by this grant, said the effort will involve collaboration with several partners, including the U.S. Attorney's Office and local police and prosecutors.

In addition, the funding will help North Dakota better track human trafficking statistics over the three-year grant period "so that we can really start to quantify and better identify trends in the state," Sambor said.

While North Dakota has begun focusing more efforts on investigating sex trafficking in the past two years, this federal grant will be the first coordinated effort to focus on labor trafficking in the state. The effort will involve working with Department of Labor compliance inspectors and establishing a protocol for investigating labor trafficking cases, according to the grant application.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., urged the Department of Justice in a letter this month to provide North Dakota with federal resources to fight human trafficking.

"As the incidences and threat continues to grow in North Dakota, we have to make sure members of our communities, business leaders, and local law enforcement have the resources they need to address and prevent these horrific crimes, and these funds will help do that," Heitkamp said in a statement.

The Department of Justice announced $22.7 million in funding to 16 anti-trafficking task forces on Thursday, including North Dakota's.