Human and sex trafficking on the home front

Aimee Coons, Staff Writer

On Oct. 20, 2017, the UND Law School hosted a panel discussing the crisis of human trafficking in the United States, specifically in the North Dakota area. Mediating the panel was John Clark, former President of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC); sitting on the panel was Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Thomasine Heitkamp (Professor of Social Work at UND), Staca Shehan (Executive Director of NCMEC’s case analysis division) and Tom Brusegaard (Representative of Sen. Kathy Hogan).

The panel came together to discuss the crisis of human trafficking and the legislative policy changes to help prevent human trafficking. At the start of the panel, I was under the extremely false impression that human trafficking was not an issue in the United States. After listening to the panel, I felt as if I had been living under a rock in regards to this problem.

I have always known human trafficking existed. I lived on Okinawa, Japan for two years and we were constantly trained on the Air Force Base about the dangers and effects of human trafficking. I expected home to be safer than overseas. I was wrong.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the United States in 2015, there were 5,545 reports of potential human trafficking cases, 1,630 of which involved minors. The Fuse Projects reports that in 2016, the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force served 79 cases of commercial sexual exploitation/human trafficking. 26 of these involved minors.

Staca Shehan started the panel off by stating that, “Child sex trafficking is a missing child issue.”

Shehan reported that many of the children who are trafficked are members of the LGBTQ+ community and runaway children from social services. The average age of those being trafficked are 15-years-old. Victims are primarily female, with male trafficking victims on the rise.

Human/sex trafficking is not a stand alone epidemic. Trafficking contributes to the drug and illegal gun trade. All of these illegal activities are intertwined, supporting each other by ways of funding and shielding one another from legal repercussions.

Sen. Heitkamp weighed in on the issue by stating human trafficking is “all of our problem, these are our kids.” Sen. Heitkamp passionately spoke of the work that is being done to create legislation to prevent human/sex trafficking, including: Abolish Human Trafficking Act, Amber Alert Indian Act, Savanna’s Act, Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Safe Harbor bill.

Both Sen. Heitkamp and Prof. Heitkamp agree that prevention is the best way to stop human/sex trafficking, and more resources on many fronts are needed to prevent abuse and trafficking cases as well as providing basic assistance for victims.

“A critical point of prevention,” Sen. Hietkamp said, “is a person who knows how to treat trauma.”

Sen. Heitkamp spoke about the Amber Alert Indian Act and Savanna’s Act’s importance. Savanna’s Act will help “combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls,” according to the senator’s website The Amber Alert Indian Act will provide Native American tribes eligible for AMBER Alert grants, assisting in the location of missing Native Americans.

“We don’t know how many Native Americans are missing or abused,” Sen. Heitkamp said.

“Native American children experience more trauma than the average American.”

Native American women are murdered at ten times the national average, and 84 percent of the Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime” (

The panel also spoke of child pornography, stating that over half the people who have accessed such materials have contact with the victims of said materials. Discussion included the Communications Decency Act and the fight against and Craigslist for child prostitution and trafficking.

“What used to be on the street corner is now at the keyboard,” Sen. Heitkamp said.

At the end of the panel, the question put forth by a community member was, “How do we start changing the culture?”

The panel agreed that changes are slow and happen almost one person at a time. However, delivering support behavior and health support in conjunction is key to assisting victims of these crimes. Both Sen. Heitkamp and Prof. Heitkamp stressed that understanding goes a long way. Victims of these horrendous crimes need legislative and communal support. Anyone can make a difference.

Aimee Coons is a opinion writer for Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected]