Rise in sex trafficking on Bakken oil patch poses new challenges

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The Bakken bump has turned the sleepy towns that dot western North Dakota into fledgling cities; communities like Williston have become boom towns, as well-paid oil workers (and their families) flood the area in search of economic security.

But as additional homes and building rise, the newly formed shadows hide a new problem: sex trafficking.

Law enforcement leaders and victim advocates met with lawmakers Monday to address the ever more prevalent issue, the Dickinson Press reports. Much of it centered on training locals how to spot sex trafficking, the paper says, an "urban crime" that didn't have a big presence in the Bakken area until all the new jobs, men and money moved in.

The warning tremors began years ago.

From October 2011 through February 2012, the Watford City Police Department made nine prostitution arrests – the first such arrests ever for the county, the Bismarck Tribune reported at the time. Some other sex-for-hire cases were investigated – including one involving high school girls – but officials told the paper none of the cases involved human trafficking.

Slade Herfindahl, the Watford City police chief, told the Tribune the women were there for work and money, same as everyone else.

“They hear on CNN Money about the disposable income, the man-to-woman ratio. Some are dancers and say they’re doing this until they can get a stripping spot,” Herfindahl said. “The money is good. One told me she’s made $160,000 a year."

And there's a demand.

The New York Times described the oil patch as a "testosterone-saturated area with a shortage of single young women," a ratio that has led to women in the area saying they don't feel safe. A 22-year-old told the Times five men offered she and a friend $7,000 to strip naked and serve them beer at a house while they watched sports.

Another woman, 28-yea-rold Megan Dye, told the paper men there often look at women like "a piece of meat."

"It's disgusting. It's gross," she said.

As the number of sex workers – forced or unforced – has risen, the lack of proper training locally has become more glaring.

Montana Public Radio spoke with Bryan Lockerby, administrator of the state's Department of Criminal Investigation. Lockerby said statistics show 70 percent of female prostitutes were brought into the sex trade via illegal human trafficking, often as young teenagers and recruited by pimps.

And while there is a lot of "circumstantial evidence," the Montana Department of Justice told the radio station, Lockerby said only 10 percent of law enforcement there have been trained to deal with sex trafficking. Meaning many officers don't know how to "recognize or quantify the scope of prostitution" in the area.

Proper training and adjusting enforcement were significant topics at Monday's roundtable in Williston, which was hosted by Reps. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., the Dickingson Press reports.

"It’s a learning curve," an undercover agent, who was not identified, said at the meeting. "It’s so horrific that the faster we can learn this and act on it, the better off all of us will be."

The Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization, says sex trafficking in the U.S. is often done online, through fake businesses, or even at truck stops. Traffickers target vulnerable people, the organization says, such as undocumented immigrants or at-risk youth.

Roundtable participants said law enforcement officers need to know how to assist victims of sex trafficking, rather than arresting them for prostitution (the traditional course of action), the Dickinson Press says.

"A lot of testosterone, (there’s) a lot of testosterone being thrown around in this town,” 24-year-old Williston-native Nathan Kleyer told Montana Public Radio. "If you're looking for [sex-for-hire], you can find it, it's there.”

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