October 20, 2015

Watford City to to host human trafficking summit

By Betsy Ryan
Farmer Staff Writer

You are at a local gas station, you eye a girl walking slowly down the aisle with a man following awfully close behind her. You try to say hello and she doesn’t meet your eye. The man says hello for her and as he nudges her arm to move her along faster you spot a bruise on her wrist. Did you catch the clues? What do you do?
Human trafficking is, and has been for quite some time, a national issue. It is not a new problem to North Dakota but one that has been exacerbated in the Bakken due to the oil boom.
Local anti-trafficking task force, ØExploitation4All, has organized a Human Trafficking Summit in Watford City to address this very problem. The summit will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 28, from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. at the office of Whiting Oil and Gas, located at 701 4th Ave. NW. All are invited to attend and participation is free. ØExploitation4All’s goal is to educate the community and raise awareness of human trafficking in this area.
“We want to open this up for everyone in the community,” Amy Robinson, a member of the task force, says. “This will be an important event for anyone and everyone. Human trafficking is a societal problem. We can’t change societal perspective without bringing awareness and education to our community.”
When the oil and money started flowing about five years ago in the Bakken, thousands of people, the majority being male, flocked to the area, forever changing the landscape and demographics of Western North Dakota.
With such a drastic difference in the ratio of women to men, the demand for sex workers shot to an all-time high. As the demand for sex workers outweighed the supply, human traffickers found the opportunity to prey on minor girls and vulnerable women to fill the gap. Through coercion and force, victims are caught and held captive, forced into prostitution or other jobs while the money they make is pocketed by their captors.  
Human trafficking is a rampant problem in today’s society. The details, however, are not known by very many people. Victims pass under the radar without being recognized as victims, being mistakenly labeled as prostitutes, and community members are unable to connect these victims with the proper resources to get out of their situation.  
North Dakota reports serving 150 trafficking victims in 2014 according to a grant applications - 16 of those victims were minors.
While the majority of human trafficking occurs in big cities through the United States, with typical numbers of reports of human trafficking in the Midwest quite low, the numbers in western North Dakota are recently matching those of the big cities. With over 5,000 cases of human trafficking reported each year in the United States, it is time to raise awareness in Watford City.
 “People ask me if sex trafficking happens here and my answer is, absolutely,” states Art Walgren, Watford City Chief of Police, “These girls were forced into the business to begin with and have no way out. Prime victims are between 12 and 15 years old, usually runaways or those who don’t have family support. Men groom them, giving them love, attention and gifts and eventually begin to pimp them out.”
Walgren related an investigation in New Town where a man preyed on Junior High School girls, buying them alcohol and getting them hooked on dope and then began pimping them out. The man was convicted and is now serving time in federal prison.
There have been several sting investigations in North Dakota recently, with law enforcement zeroing in on perpetrators and identified victims. But, because of the nature of the crime, it is extremely difficult to get these victims to press charges and cooperate with the police. Victims do not feel safe and don’t see a way out of the life they have been living.
North Dakota’s first grant aimed toward providing resources to victims of human trafficking was awarded in 2000. With only 15 years of attention and even fewer years collecting data on actual victims, the depth and breadth of the real problem is still coming to light. There have been cases of human trafficking here in Watford City. Based on anecdotal evidence women are being victimized and brought to the Bakken.
Not only are the goals of ØExploitation4All to educate and increase awareness in the community, but also to let the perpetrators of human trafficking know that the Watford City community is taking notice and is fighting back.
The summit will teach the signs and symptoms of trafficking, how to diagnose a potential trafficking situation and spot the red flags. While resources are still minimal for trafficked victims in the community, there is a plan put in place through the Watford City Police Department to aid victims.
“Our community seems to respond to the idea of human trafficking in one of two ways,” a representative who sits on the task force says. “Either a person will close their eyes and say there is absolutely no problem, they think that human trafficking is just exaggerated Bakken drama, or a person will live in complete fear, keeping their children inside and constantly worrying about them becoming a victim of human trafficking. Neither is really the right response. We don’t need to live in fear but we must recognize that there is a problem and learn how to combat that problem so that we may be empowered.”
The subject matter covered will be raw, honest, hard to hear, and powerful. Presenter Windie Lazenko will be presenting her first-hand experience as a victim of sex trafficking and Art Walgren, Chief of Police, will be talking about instances of sex trafficking in and around Watford City.  Christina Sambor, Troy Seibel and Rick Volk will be talking about North Dakota legislation and give perspective on current actions taken to combat human trafficking in North Dakota.
In 2014 North Dakota awarded a $1.5 million grant to build resources for human trafficking. North Dakota is acknowledging there is a problem and investing in a solution. It lies within the responsibility of this community to follow suit and take action as well.
Please attend the summit and join ØExploitation4All in facing the problem of human trafficking in Watford City and McKenzie County.