Bill would boost efforts to fight child sex trafficking
FARGO — Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Heidi Heitkamp are gearing up to tackle child sex trafficking — a horrifying and growing concern for Fargo-Moorhead leaders.
Local law enforcement officials say they know minors are brought into Fargo-Moorhead from other countries, and sometimes groomed from the region, and forced into having sex for pay, but it’s tough to quantify how often.
Nationally, an estimated 100,000 children are forced into sex trafficking every year, according to the Polaris Project.
In North Dakota, 11 men were arrested in Dickinson in November in a human trafficking sting. A New Town man was convicted in 2012 after he was arrested for operating a drug and prostitution ring involving minors.
“This is another issue that … is surprisingly prevalent in the Midwest, and not just in the big metro areas but also in the rural areas of our states,” Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said before a roundtable to discuss the issue in Fargo on Saturday, which was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
In November, Klobuchar introduced a bill in Congress that law enforcement officials and county prosecutors said would help them pull minors out of abusive situations and crack down on pimps and prostitution rings. Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, and several other senators are co-sponsoring the legislation.
The heart of the bill would ensure that minors forced into prostitution aren’t prosecuted but instead treated as victims. Modeled after Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law passed in 2011, Heitkamp and Klobuchar said it should help prosecutors by compelling victims to testify against prostitution ring members and help victims get their lives back on track.
“Once we label a young girl a felon, there’s a whole series of opportunities that evaporate,” Heitkamp said.
The bill would provide incentives for states that pass a law, as Minnesota and about a dozen other states have already done. It would also bolster the National Human Trafficking Hotline, create a national strategy to fight human trafficking and help victims access job training and obtain restitution.
Klobuchar said she hopes to get the bill rolling and passed this year. A companion bill has been introduced in the House.
And though Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said it hasn’t been a prevalent problem in the metro area, law enforcement officials said it’s a growing concern.
“The problems are coming right down the interstate from the (Twin Cities) metro,” Moorhead, Minn., Police Chief David Ebinger said.
Fargo Deputy Chief Pat Claus said police started looking into sex trafficking of minors about a decade ago. Investigators monitor websites such as Backpages and follow up on tips, he said.
But the most important tool for getting a minor out of prostitution, Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said, is awareness on the common calls: traffic stops, domestic abuse or parties at hotels.
Claus and Laney said additional training for officers to look for the signs of sex trafficking and interact with victims — included in part of Klobuchar’s bill — will be invaluable.
“We need everybody to be trained,” Laney said.