We've got a long wat to go compared to Minnesota. Now it's our turn to pick up the ball, to be as aggressive as Minnesota and learn from them as well.
U.S. Senator, D-N.D.
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., talk in September about their joint efforts to combat human trafficking from Heitkamp's office in Washington, D.C. - Ryan Babb / Forum News Service
By Amy Dalrymple
Forum News Service
WASHINGTON – As local police chiefs and sheriffs gathered in Minot to discuss increased crime in North Dakota’s Oil Patch, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp interjected when one cited a spike in prostitution.
That may be human trafficking, she said.
“Understand that maybe behind that, what you’re seeing as prostitution is some of the worst victimization that’s out there. There may be somebody who is in fact being trafficked, forced to do this against their will,” said Heitkamp, D-N.D.
Raising awareness of human trafficking in her state while also working to advance federal
legislation to combat modern-day slavery has been a major focus for Heitkamp, a former North Dakota attorney general.
Working closely with her is U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, another Democrat who also comes from a law enforcement background. In a joint interview with Forum News Service in Heitkamp’s Washington office, the senators talked about their passion for an issue that knows no state boundaries.
“This is an example of how Minnesota and North Dakota can work together,” Klobuchar said.
Both have teamed with Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a national leader on anti-trafficking issues. The three visited Mexico last year to learn how officials there are addressing trafficking.
Klobuchar, a former top Hennepin County prosecutor, said it became clear to her that changes needed to be made to human trafficking laws while her office attempted to prosecute sex rings.
Often the victims would recant their stories, saying they were scared of their pimp.
“Pretty soon you realized this isn’t working very well. We’re not really, as a country, going after the people that are really doing these crimes,” Klobuchar said.
Following efforts to raise awareness in the state, Minnesota adopted a Safe Harbor law, ensuring that minor victims of sex trafficking are treated as such, not as criminals.
“The only way you’re going to be able to build a case against their pimp, someone running a sex trafficking ring, is if you have a victim who’s really able to tell the whole story,” Klobuchar said.
Now, one federal initiative Klobuchar and Heitkamp are working to advance would push all states to adopt Safe Harbor laws. That bill did not pass last year, but it did elevate the importance of the issue. Many states, including North Dakota, are now moving to adopt Safe Harbor laws on their own.
They also support federal legislation aimed at increasing penalties for traffickers, providing more services to domestic sex trafficking victims and providing funding for runaway and homeless youth programs.
More work needs to be done in both states, they say, although Heitkamp said North Dakota is further behind.
“We’ve got a long way to go compared to Minnesota,” Heitkamp said. “Now it’s our turn to pick up the ball, to be as aggressive as Minnesota and learn from them as well.”
Heitkamp and Klobuchar share concerns about the threat of sex trafficking facing Native American populations in their states.
“It makes sense when you have people who are very poor who are in a concentrated area, that you’re going to see more of this trafficking,” Klobuchar said. “It’s really one of the saddest things to see these proud, Native American families have to deal with the fact that their child is a victim of sex trafficking.”
In addition to sex trafficking, Heitkamp also reminds people that the potential for labor trafficking, particularly in the Bakken where workers are in high-demand, needs attention, too.
In North Dakota, Heitkamp would like to see more funding invested for training of law enforcement, victim service providers and others. She’d also like to see resources dedicated to a shelter and helping victims.
“The best a lot of our domestic violence shelters can do in the Oil Patch is a bus ticket. That’s not an answer,” Heitkamp said. “Housing prices are so high, it’s just really hard to help people transition into a safe place. We really need to listen to what the victim advocates are saying they need in western North Dakota, not just on trafficking, but all crimes against women.”
After touring programs such as Breaking Free and 180 Degrees in Minnesota, Heitkamp said it gives her hope knowing that helping sexually exploited women and girls leave the life is possible with the right long-term programs.
“I’m so encouraged that you can, in fact, with a lot of hard work, help people through recovery,” Heitkamp said.
The only way you’re going to be able to build a case against their pimp, someone running a sex trafficking ring, is if you have a victim who’s really able to tell the whole story
US Senator, Minn.