New Panel Aims To Prevent Human Trafficking In North Dakota

By John Celock

A new commission aimed at helping victims and raising awareness has been formed as part of new package of laws to prevent human trafficking in North Dakota.

State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjam (R) announced earlier this week the creation of the commission as part of the new laws, which took effect Aug. 1. The package – adopted by lawmakers earlier this year – includes $1.25 million in funds to help human trafficking victims, new penalties for prosecuting prostitution and increased penalties for those who engage in human trafficking. The commission – which is being led by Stenehjam – will take on a role of both distributing the victim assistance funds and helping to educate the public in ways to prevent human trafficking in the state.

“It is not only how to help victims but to create public awareness,” state Rep. Jessica Haak (D-Jamestown), who has been advocating for human trafficking prevention in the Legislature, told The Celock Report. “So people can know what the signs are and know who to contact. It takes preventive measures as well.”

Haak, who is serving on the new commission, said the panel plans to reach out to work with national human trafficking prevention groups to raise awareness of those resources, along with letting residents know what signs to look for. She said that while it is important for law enforcement to work to prosecute the cases, one of the best things that can be done is prevent the rise in human trafficking.

“Part of the public awareness is prevention,” she said. “Yes we want to crack down on those committing these crimes but also we want to prevent trafficking in North Dakota.”

In terms of the distribution of the $1.25 million, Haak said a priority is to create new centers for human trafficking survivors to find services. She said currently the state has one in Minot but more are needed. She noted that right now many victims go to domestic violence shelters, which is placing a strain on those organizations. Haak said that while the domestic violence shelters can help, human trafficking and domestic violence are “two different things” and need focused centers trained to handle victims.

Haak said that providing services for victims will help in the prosecution of human trafficking. She said the necessary services will allow victims to come forward and allow them to work with law enforcement in prosecutions, which has been advocated for by national human trafficking prevention groups for years.

Human trafficking prevention has been gaining increased awareness from North Dakota lawmakers in recent years. Haak said that she did not want to connect the issue to the oil boom in the western part of the state, which has increased population in the Williston area and led to many relocating to North Dakota from other states. She said that while the oil boom has highlighted the issue, human trafficking has “been here for decades” and that “the oil boom did not start this.”

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a former North Dakota attorney general, has become a leading human trafficking prevention advocate on Capitol Hill. Haak praised Heitkamp for her leadership on the issue nationally has helping to raise awareness in North Dakota.

“Heidi Heitkamp has really spearheaded this issue, particularly in North Dakota,” Haak told The Celock Report. “She has done it on a national level. There is now more awareness about it.”

On her Senate website, Heitkamp notes that she started working on human trafficking issues when she was state attorney general in the 1990s.

Heitkamp has been working with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Cindy McCain, the wife of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to raise awareness of the human trafficking issue and promote new federal legislation. The two senators and Mrs. McCain have traveled to Mexico to work with Mexican law enforcement in an effort to craft an international solution to the issue. Heitkamp and Klobuchar have introduced federal legislation to say that minors who are trafficked to the United States are not victims. Mrs. McCain has been appointed by former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) in recent years to lead two Arizona human trafficking prevention panels.

National human trafficking prevention advocates have been pressing state lawmakers in recent years to create more state based prevention programs and laws to combat human trafficking, including victim assistance funds like the one passed in North Dakota.

Haak said that she believes that the entire package of bills will allow North Dakota law enforcement and social service groups to address ways to reduce human trafficking in the state and help victims.

“When we get these funds allocated and help victims on their feet so prosecutors can prosecute will help,” she said. “All of the bills we’ve passed to crack down on this, it is a huge step forward. Now adding to this that if you are a victim we’ll take care of you, North Dakota is going to help.”