Montana Attorney General Tim Fox called the effort to stop human trafficking “the fight against modern-day slavery.”
On Sunday, state representative Kimberly Dudik’s organization, the Montana Anti-Trafficking Project, held its first Run for Freedom 5-kilometer race in Missoula as part of an effort to raise money for the group, which works to raise awareness and prevent human trafficking in Montana.
While reports of human trafficking have been on the rise across the state, Dudik said it is a crime that follows the money, with a noted increase in eastern Montana and the Bakken region of North Dakota.
“They are Internet-based and rely on frequent movement. So they will post something like ‘I’ll only be here for a few days, looking to meet up with someone,’ then be gone,” she said.
Dudik had previously worked in the child protection unit as an assistant attorney general to now-governor Steve Bullock.
Girls aged 12-14 are particularly at risk of being brought into sexual trafficking, said Kat Werner, domestic and sexual violence program manager with the YWCA of Missoula.
“A majority of the girls in it have been the victims of trauma, sexual violence or abuse, or homelessness.” she said. “Traffickers prey on the people with the biggest vulnerabilities.”
Werner is also the chair of the Missoula Anti Human Trafficking task force.
According to a United Nations study, human trafficking is the second most profitable illicit activity after drug trafficking, with more than 27 million people at any time being the victims in the human trafficking trade. In the United States, about 300,000 children are sexually exploited or prostituted every year.
Dudik will be introducing a bill in the 2015 session of the Montana Legislature that deals with human trafficking. Among the goals for the legislation are to provide resources to train law enforcement, make the prosecution of human traffickers easier and increase the penalties for people convicted of the crime.
At the event, the attorney general also introduced a semitrailer from Watkins & Shepard Trucking that had been covered with slogans and hotline contact information about human trafficking, calling truck drivers the “eyes and ears of our highways.” It is the first semitrailer to feature the truck wrap supporting the fight against the crime in Montana.
“We’re also training all of our drivers to recognize the signs and know who to contact if they see something,” said Megan Robson, Watkins Shepard’s human resources manager.
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Town Pump not only donated to help with the expenses of the truck wrap, but will also be putting anti-human trafficking posters up in their gas station locations across the state.
In November, mayor John Engen declared that Dec. 7 would be Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Missoula.
Fox said right now, the most important aspect is making sure the the public is aware of the problem, and taking that message to the Legislature.
“We not only want to prevent it, and want to prosecute it, but we also want to educate people about it,” he said.
Already, there are nonprofit organizations around the state that are able to help victims of human trafficking, Fox said, citing the Watson Children’s Shelter in Missoula as an example.
“We can’t always depend on the government, money is limited, but there are organizations that are already set up to help those victims,” he said.
In Montana the problem of human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, is two fold.
“We’ve had young girls trafficked into Montana for sex, and also had Montana girls that have been taken out of the state,” Fox said.
Last year, he said there were 44 calls made to the Polaris Project’s national trafficking hotline from Montana, which included cases of sexual as well as labor trafficking cases. The National Association of Attorneys General has had the issue as a priority for the past four years.
“These people are constantly on the move and they do that purposefully. Their victims are controlled psychologically and physically with threats,” Fox said.
Sunday’s run was only slightly spoiled by colder temperatures in the morning had most of the trails through Silver Park slick with ice.
“I think I’m going to be walking it today,” Fox said.