The Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force is stepping forward into 2019 with a plan to cast a wider recruitment net for potential members and expand the group's awareness campaign.
Human trafficking and sex trafficking, said task force chair Kat Werner, is often more visible than the community may realize. But, as Missoula Police Detective Guy Baker adds, without an understanding of the signs of sex trafficking, "You don't know what you don't know."
"I think that's where thinking about all the different roles we play as professionals, community members, counties, cities, everyone can really step up and use that knowledge," said Werner, also a clinical assistant professor at the University of Montana's School of Social Work.
The task force, a multi-disciplinary coalition of social services providers, law enforcement and community members, did not sit idly by this year. Over the course of 2018, Baker conducted 20 training sessions for law enforcement, 911 dispatchers, hotel employees and more. Since 2014, Baker has led trainings for more than 2,000 law enforcement and criminal justice personnel in Washington, Idaho and Montana.
The task force also took steps to better structure itself to share information across agencies, establishing subcommittees to leverage resources when outreach or victim services are needed. The group also conducted a study to capture what community members, service providers and law enforcement know and think about human trafficking in the region. The take-away from that survey: There's an appetite for more training and involvement.
"Every interstate or freeway city in America of any size is going to have trafficking," Baker said. "If there's a demand for prostitution, there's going to be a supply by people who exploit women."
There are typically three kinds of sex trafficking, Werner and Baker said. Most commonly, girls and women from out of state are brought into Montana to be exploited here; local women are also exploited here; and in other cases, women here are persuaded to leave Montana to be exploited elsewhere. Werner said she encountered victims and survivors off all three types during her time at the YWCA here in Missoula.
Baker said he's investigated roughly 10 cases per year each of the last five years. The most recent prostitution charges in Missoula were filed Aug. 13 against Walter Leon Hill. Prosecutors allege while in the Missoula County jail in July, Hill asked a detention officer to pass a note to a woman also incarcerated. According to charging documents, staff found the note was a proposition to engage in prostitution, and to recruit other women in treatment services.
It's not just the I-90 corridor. A woman recently told Great Falls authorities that 75-year-old Edwin Sherbondy, already charged with child sex trafficking earlier this year, sold her for sex for 20 years before he was apprehended, the Great Falls Tribune reported Wednesday.
It's difficult to carry these cases through the criminal justice system to hold those who exploit vulnerable women accountable, they said.
"Girls and women sometimes don't identify as a victim, and there's so much trauma and power wrapped up in these situations," Werner said. "Sometimes, they leave situations behind that may be worse than the situations they might have been in."
"These victims deserve our effort as a community and as law enforcement because they're in a terrible situation and sometimes it only takes one person to see them for what they are, that starts the process to get them out of the life," Baker said.
The year ahead holds several opportunities for the local team: training sessions already planned for January and February, legislation that looks to close loopholes in prostitution laws, and pursuit for funding to further expand the operation.
The team is also trying to create a sort of curriculum for middle school students to help identify predators who try to make contact over social media.
The awareness campaign will soon include posters and informational literature on city buses in Missoula, where those vulnerable populations who may encounter potential trafficking can find the associated resources in plain sight.
A free training for professionals is scheduled for Jan. 9, from 1-5 p.m. at the University of Montana's UC Theatre. A free event for the public will follow at the same location, beginning at 6 p.m.