It takes a trememdous amount of work to gain the trust, to make these victims understand they aren't going to be prosecuted, and make them so they trust law enforcement.
ND Attorney General
Photo by John Steiner/ Forum News Service
By Amy Dalrymple and Katherine Lymn
Forum News Service
Plans to invest in law enforcement and strengthen human trafficking laws appear to have support as North Dakota’s legislative session begins this week, although proposals to expand victim services still lack the promise of funding.
Other than adding a victim advocate to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the only proposal put forth so far for victim services would allocate $500,000 to a pilot project in four counties, three in the Oil Patch and one in Fargo.
But Gov. Jack Dalrymple says he is committed to addressing human trafficking in western North Dakota and last month outlined a budget plan that calls for spending $90 million in new money next biennium on law enforcement to fight human trafficking and other crimes.
Dalrymple said hearing directly from BCI agents about the frequency of trafficking in the Oil Patch and around the state is shocking.
“They’re stories that I never would have thought of being any part of western North Dakota. I think the average citizen in North Dakota, too, would be amazed,” he said. “But that just means that we have to take it very seriously, we have to address it and we’re moving the resources out there right away.”
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem says supporting victim services is critical to prosecuting human trafficking cases. He said he asked the governor for a victim advocate to follow up with potential victims the BCI identifies and connect them with services.
“It takes a tremendous amount of work to gain the trust, to make these victims understand they aren’t going to be prosecuted, and make them so they trust law enforcement,” he said.
Fighting human trafficking was a major reason Stenehjem cited in asking the governor for a big staffing increase: about 25 additional positions for his office and the BCI.
The proposed positions include:
- Seven new BCI agents primarily assigned to Oil Patch communities, including two in Watford City where currently none are based.
- Two new agents with the BCI's division that investigates Internet crimes involving children, who would spend a lot of their time on human trafficking cases.
- An additional criminal attorney to help county prosecutors with major cases.
- An additional criminal intelligence analyst.
The new positions will not be designated to handle only human trafficking. But many, such as the intelligence analyst, would be key for investigating complex cases.
“There’s lots of information, but it doesn’t do you a whole lot of good to have a whole bunch of information coming in if you don’t have the people who can analyze it and decide what to do with it,” Stenehjem said. “That’s especially true when we’ve got interstate operations going on.”
Some of the budget request calls for positions to be funded before the next biennium begins so agents could be hired this winter if legislators approve the proposal, Dalrymple said.
“I was convinced that they need more personnel, they need more boots on the ground,” Dalrymple said.
A decision announced by the FBI late last year to open a permanent office in Williston is another major step forward, Dalrymple said.
“In order to be effective at all in dealing with it, you have to be able to get to the source of the problem. And that quite often is people who are outside of North Dakota,” Dalrymple said.
Investigating human trafficking cases is a priority issue for the FBI in the Bakken, along with addressing an increase in cases of drug distribution and crimes of violence, said Kyle Loven, spokesman for the FBI region that includes North Dakota.
Agents have been temporarily rotating to northwest North Dakota, but have not had a permanent presence. Local sheriffs and police chiefs complained in a roundtable hosted by U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., last year that the FBI agents cycled through the Bakken too quickly to adequately take on long-term investigations.
“I think we will mostly likely be in a more effective position to deal with not only human trafficking, but to deal with other crimes once we get a permanent established presence in the area,” Loven said.
Since Hoeven announced the new Williston FBI office last November, no details have been released about a specific location, when it will open or how many agents will be based there.
Finding office space for additional staff in the booming Oil Patch communities will be a challenge for the FBI, as well as the BCI.
For state and local law enforcement, additional training for officers to recognize the signs of human trafficking also is a priority addressed in the budget proposal, Stenehjem said.
Funding for training will come out of $20 million Dalrymple proposes in grants to law enforcement agencies in oil-impacted counties, an increase of nearly $3.5 million over this biennium.
While many officers from around the state have attended human trafficking training recently, a trainer who led daylong sessions in Minot, Williston, Watford City and Dickinson said more in-depth education is needed.
“The next step is to bring really specialized training,” said John Vanek, retired lieutenant with a San Jose, Calif., human trafficking task force, adding that the class he led was mainly to raise awareness.
Nationally, law enforcement personnel lack sufficient training on human trafficking, Vanek said. In California, where Vanek said aggressive efforts to promote training have been underway, he estimates 10 to 15 percent of officers “understand exactly what trafficking is and how to investigate a specific aspect of it, particularly documenting the level of coercion.”
The increase in state and local law enforcement funding is focused on western North Dakota, but some resources would be for the whole state.
“These crimes are statewide, they’re not isolated to western North Dakota. But because of the population influx and because of the nature of the workforce out there, it is very, very dramatic how it’s increased,” Dalrymple said.
The victim advocate will be key to building rapport with victims, critical to convicting the traffickers, as well as helping the victim connect with services, Stenehjem said.
He acknowledges that more support for victims is needed, including long-term relief.
“You don’t get into these things overnight,” Stenehjem said, “but getting out of it has to be one of the most difficult things that any woman would ever have to face.”
The governor’s budget proposal also includes more funding to support behavioral health services, as well as $500,000 more for domestic violence programs, investments that could also support human trafficking victims.
They're stories that I never would have though of being any part of western North Dakota. I think the average citizen in North Dakota, too, would be amazed. But that just means that we have to take it very seriously, we have to address it and we're moving the resources out there right away.
North Dakota Governor, on sex trafficking in the oil patch
Stenehjem also plans to support a law that will be introduced by the North Dakota Uniform Law Commission that decriminalizes prostitution for minors, often referred to as a Safe Harbor law.
The proposal, more comprehensive than North Dakota’s current human trafficking laws, addresses criminal penalties, provides more protections for victims and promotes public awareness.
Rep. Larry Klemin, R-Bismarck, a member of the state’s uniform law commission, said a major goal of the law is to make victims aware that they should not be considered criminals.
In addition to immunity for minors, the law would allow women charged with prostitution to assert an “affirmative defense” if they are victims of trafficking. Victims also could seek to vacate convictions of prostitution and some other non-violent offenses that resulted from being trafficked.
The law also allows victims to take civil action against traffickers.
“We want these victims to understand that they are victims and they can get out of this and there is help for them,” Klemin said.
Other key components of the law include:
- Increasing penalties for some circumstances, such as recruiting a victim from a domestic violence shelter, runaway youth home or similar facility.
- Requiring traffickers to pay restitution to victims for expenses such as attorney fees and compensation for the income owed to the victim for labor or sexual activity.
- Rest stops and hospitals will be required to display public awareness signs advertising the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline.
- Business entities that knowingly engage in human trafficking can be held liable.
The bill does not include any appropriations.
“That always makes passage of a bill more difficult,” said South Central District Judge Gail Hagerty, also a member of the uniform law commission.
Rep. Gail Mooney, D-Cummings, who has been active at recent anti-trafficking discussions, said adopting the uniform law is a priority, but she wonders how the efforts can be effective without additional funding.
“If we can get the laws changed, that’s the first most important thing. But myself, I think we really need to put some of our money where our mouth is,” Mooney said, adding that the state is “bursting at the seams” with money and people.
But while oil revenues have driven the state’s budget surplus to record numbers, the recent drop in oil prices could make legislators nervous about spending big money on new initiatives.
Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said creating new full-time state positions always creates debate among legislators, even when the price of oil is strong.
While while there is uncertainty about the state’s budget forecast, Holmberg, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the general fund is somewhat cushioned from the ups and downs of oil prices. Legislators will have a better picture when they receive the budget forecast in March, and decisions about funding new programs will likely come toward the end of the session.
“I haven't run to the bomb shelter or anything like that,” Holmberg said. “We just need to wait and see.”
He added that he hopes dollars will be dedicated to fighting human trafficking.
“It’s a serious problem. It’s a problem recognized by our congressional delegation, it’s certainly recognized by the attorney general and the governor. And I think and hope that the Legislature does fully address the problem,” Holmberg said.