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Heitkamp: Protecting our children from ‘the life’ of human trafficking

WASHINGTON -- Growing up in Mantador, I never feared for my safety. Most of us remember a time not too long ago when that was still true.North Dakota communities are just as strong today, but the challenges we face are growing. The oil and gas bo...

WASHINGTON - Growing up in Mantador, I never feared for my safety. Most of us remember a time not too long ago when that was still true.
North Dakota communities are just as strong today, but the challenges we face are growing. The oil and gas boom has brought new jobs and new neighbors, but we can’t ignore the dark side of the boom - the fact that crime, drugs and other challenges have emerged - as well as labor and sex trafficking.
These traffickers carefully choose the most helpless and vulnerable among us - usually young women and children - luring them with companionship and building trust, then forcing them into cycles of violence and crime that leaves them dependent on “the life” of human trafficking.
“The life.” That’s the term I heard again and again this spring in Bismarck when I brought human trafficking victims and advocates together to talk about how to combat these hideous crimes head on.
Danielle John, a survivor, spoke about her experience. She talked about being taken, sold and branded with tattoos, racking up a criminal record and suddenly being caught in “the life” - and seemingly locked out of any hope of regaining a normal one.
And it’s a term that too many Americans know all too well: 83 percent of sex trafficking victims in this country are American citizens and are often our most vulnerable - runaways and homeless young people, many of them barely teenagers.
It’s hard to believe these terrible crimes are happening in North Dakota, but it’s true.
Since joining the Senate, I’ve made it my mission to protect our young people and those most at-risk from “the life” - from those who prey on their vulnerability right in our own backyards. After law enforcement in the Oil Patch in 2013 reported something sinister - a recent spike in prostitution crime that actually was human slavery in disguise - I sounded the alarm bells in the Senate. That fall, I led a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on how to fight on a local level what is now a multi-billion dollar underground industry in this country: sex trafficking.
Ever since then, I’ve worked with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to help protect and claim justice for human trafficking victims. Last year, I helped introduce several pieces of legislation that the president signed which will help human trafficking - including harsher penalties for traffickers and legal protections that help make sure that young people who have been trafficked are treated as victims instead of criminals.
At home, we made progress as well - with our state Legislature passing similar safeguards to protect young victims and allocating more funding to help victims get the services and help they need to escape and recover from these crimes.
Going forward, we need to do everything in our power to protect our nation’s most vulnerable - and part of that starts with training. Last spring, I introduced a bipartisan bill with my Republican colleague, Susan Collins from Maine, to take nationwide the successes of a pilot program used to train health care workers in Williston and New Town, in recognizing and reporting instances of human trafficking.
When reports have shown that one-third of human trafficking victims still being held captive see a health care professional at one point or another, it’s clear that we need to do everything we can to help them escape and recover.
But we can’t stop there. This month, our nation observes Human Trafficking Awareness Month as a solemn recognition of the heinous crimes that have trapped too many Americans in “the life” and as a sign of our nationwide commitment to eradicating this epidemic.
And we can keep that promise by shielding our most at-risk young people - our runway and homeless youth - from traffickers who often zero in on them as their singular target.
I fought for these protections in the Senate bill the president signed, but they were narrowly defeated because they included protections for LGBTQ youth.
No young person deserves to become a victim of “the life,” and I’ll keep fighting until every child is protected.
Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate. Contact her at heitkamp.senate.gov.

Related Topics: CRIMEHEIDI HEITKAMP
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