GRAND FORKS - Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., discussed policy changes that could help prevent trafficking and sexual exploitation at panel hosted by the University of North Dakota Law School on Friday, Oct. 20.

The panel, moderated by former National Center for Missing and Exploited Children President John Clark, gave law students and members of the public an idea of the scope of child trafficking and offered potential solutions.

"I think it is critically important that this not just be a social worker's problem, a cop's problem, a legislator's problem, that this be all of our problem because these are all of our kids," Heitkamp said.

"Child sex trafficking is a missing child issue," said Staca Shehan, executive director of the NCMEC's case analysis division.

Runaways, homeless youth and LGBTQ children are much more likely to be trafficked, Shehan said. About 86 percent of sex trafficking victims had run from the custody of social services.

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North Dakota has had about 113 children reported to the NCMEC in the last three years, Shehan said, more than 100 of whom were runaway children.

The average age of a trafficking victim is 15, Shehan said. Although females make up the vast majority of child sex trafficking victims, more males are coming forward. Shehan said six years ago, males made up less than 1 percent of victims and now represent about 5 percent.

"We don't think that's necessarily an increase in the victimization, but more likely better identification and more awareness that males and transgender youth are extremely vulnerable," Shehan said.

Thomasine Heitkamp, a social work professor at UND and Sen. Heitkamp's sister, recently completed a study on domestic, dating and sexual violence in the Bakken oil fields. She said the amount of concerns heard about sex trafficking during the study was stunning.

"This problem can be solved, I truly believe that, with prevention," Thomasine Heitkamp said.

She said social workers need to be more involved in fighting sex trafficking and that public health and housing initiatives need to be expanded to address the issue.

"We have to have boots on the ground," she said, calling for more sexual assault-trained nurses and trauma training for social workers.

Sen. Heitkamp said legislators need to take on Backpage.com, and other sites known for sex trafficking and called the Communications Decency Act a "barrier." She said people from Backpage.com deny being a sex for sale service and defend their site under legal speech.

"Nowhere in the First Amendment do I read where you get to rape and exploit kids," she said.

"The opioid crisis has an unseen and unheard from victim, and it's called the foster child," Sen. Heitkamp said.

Those children are at high-risk to become trafficked, she said.

"A child who has gone through this kind of trauma will require years of therapy, and will probably never emotionally recover, so prevention has to be at the forefront," Sen. Heitkamp said.

She called for more resources to be spent on training to recognize trauma in children for teachers, health care professionals and others in the community.

Tom Brusegaard, from Sen. John Hoeven's Grand Forks office, said Hoeven is working on pushing through legislation that would direct more victim's resources to tribal communities. Heitkamp has also signed on to the bill.

Sen. Heitkamp co-sponsored a bill this year with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to expand Amber Alert services to Native American reservations.

Quantifying the scope of the issue of child trafficking on reservations is difficult, which frustrates officials.

"We don't know," Sen. Heitkamp said bluntly.

A family affair

Three Heitkamp sisters whose professional lives have all led them to working with trafficked and exploited children came to the panel discussion Friday. As the executive director of Youthworks North Dakota, Melanie Heitkamp helps organize programs for runaways and homeless youth. Melanie Heitkamp spoke on a second panel discussion that addressed victim services and nonprofit organizations. She said there should be alternatives to group homes for children and a move away from seeing teens as dangerous.

The sisters say a childhood centered around community action led them to their present careers.

"Heidi always says our father was very community-minded and our mother was attuned to victims," Thomasine Heitkamp said. "Those two things came together to create broader acknowledgement."

Every problem was a community problem in the Heitkamp household, Sen. Heitkamp said. The sisters say it has brought them all to work with community issues in different ways.

"We all deal with this topic differently, we don't all come from the same place," Thomasine Heitkamp said.