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Sex traffic in Dakotas on agenda

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

A medical conference a few days ago in Sioux Falls, S.D., further sharpened the focus on human trafficking in North Dakota and South Dakota. The increase in the sex trade, which has law enforcement scrambling to confront this new menace, is attributed in large part to the wealth being generated in the Bakken oil play of North Dakota. As has been the pattern in any boom economy, crime follows money.

The Sioux Falls session was especially noteworthy because it was sponsored by private sector Avera Medical Group and the U.S. Department of Justice. It brought together some 400 health care professionals and top law enforcement officials from the region. The goal was to raise awareness among medical workers of the signs of human trafficking, which most often involves underage girls.

Avera has adopted a protocol that includes asking screening questions, the answers to which can strongly suggest the patient is a victim of human trafficking, or as it’s more commonly termed, the sex trade. Most medical and social work professionals are mandated reporters. That is, when they suspect a person younger than 18 years of age is a victim of human trafficking, they must report to law enforcement under child abuse statutes. For possible victims older than 18, the medical provider will help contact authorities, or if the patient does not want to contact law enforcement, the option is to provide information about resources.

The Avera protocol is a positive step toward more community awareness and involvement in detecting and stemming trafficking. U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon warned that some local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and service providers have a “this does not happen here” attitude, or that trafficking is a “victimless crime.” So the partnership that the Avera initiative exemplifies is vital to public education and to better law enforcement.

Trafficking is a big criminal enterprise. Previously out-of-state crime syndicates (“gangs,” as Purdon describes them) have gone into business in North Dakota and surrounding states because of the oil boom. There is money to be made in sex trafficking, and the victims are the girls (mostly, but not exclusively) who constitute the criminals’ commodity.

It is likely other medical providers are doing what Avera outlined at the Sioux Falls conference, but Avera’s high-profile announcement sends the right signal to all health care personnel to be on the lookout for signs of human trafficking. And to be sure, this new organized crime plague will get worse if the people of the Dakotas fail to take it seriously.