Hidden danger

The $32 billion human trafficking industry may not be easy to see,

but it is affecting Crook County

By Sarah Pridgeon

When it comes to a topic as harrowing as human trafficking, it’s easy to tell ourselves that it isn’t something we need worry about in the peaceful northeast of Wyoming. Unfortunately, as this multi-billion worldwide industry continues to grow, cases are cropping up worryingly close to home.

Crook County Family Violence and Sexual Assault Services (CCFV) has, in fact, identified and assisted four victims in just the last 18 months. With January designated as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Sandy Stevens and Lisa McGuinness hopes our community will take a moment to consider the issue.

“My perception is that human trafficking hasn’t increased – we’re just more aware. We live in a place where it’s not only easy to isolate, which is a perfect tactic for traffickers, but also off the interstate,” says McGuinness.

A national study of human trafficking indicated that there is a hotspot right on the border of South Dakota and Wyoming, Stevens says.

“We do have human trafficking victims,” she says. “It’s on the interstate, it’s here.”

The stereotype of a human trafficking victim is a young woman in her late teens who was lured to this country through a promise of immigration sponsorship. While this does describe many cases, says McGuinness, it also affects both males and females who were born right here in America.

“We think the number of children who are U.S. citizens that are trafficked in this country every year is around 300,000,” McGuinness says.

About 80 percent of the “market” for human trafficking is sex slavery, she adds. The remaining 20 percent is forced labor.

“For young women and boys, we know that between 12 and 14 is the average age they are first trafficked,” she says.

The Interdiction for the Protection of Children, prepared by the Wyoming DCI, states that human trafficking is the fastest growing and second largest criminal enterprise in the world, generating an estimated $32 billion per year.

“It’s outpacing drugs,” says McGuinness. Stevens points out that sex trafficking in Denver alone last year was worth $39 million.

Horrible as it sounds, says Stevens, a human being is a better investment than a drug. Once a dose of an illegal substance has been ingested, it’s gone forever; not so with a sex slave, who can be sold out ten or twenty times in a single day.

“A lot of times, the victims have to meet a quota or they don’t get to eat, they don’t get to sleep,” she says. Some are introduced to drugs to encourage dependency, she adds, or beaten for disobedience.

“We know that we need some new tools to help victims because they don’t always recognize that they are victims,” says McGuinness.

Much like domestic abuse or a cult, she explains, victims of human trafficking are sometimes unaware of the reality of their situation until they can see it more objectively in retrospect, or until something so serious happens that it jars them into realization.

“What has to happen for someone to say, ‘I’m less afraid to leave than die’?” she asks.

Leaving involves exactly the same barriers as fleeing from a domestic abuse situation, Stevens says. Issues ranging from money and shelter to fear and emotional turmoil must be overcome.

“There are no bars, there’s no cage, so it’s easy to say that they could just leave. But whether its reality or the belief held by that person, they don’t think they have that option,” says McGuinness.

Sadly, says Stevens, a victim picked up by law enforcement is often unlikely to report what’s happening to them through fear of the consequences.

“And what are we going to offer her for her to leave? She has the clothes on her back,” Stevens says.

Aiming to increase the community’s awareness, CCFV has provided training to hotel staff, while McGuinness has spent time in the Hulett and Sundance high schools, showing students a video about human trafficking called Chosen, which Stevens describes as the story of two young women who were manipulated into the lifestyle by a male who promised them a better life. Meanwhile, Wyoming is doing its best to catch up with the rest of the nation to create structure around its efforts to combat the human trafficking threat.

“Crook County Family Violence is part of the Wyoming Human Trafficking Task Force. We meet quarterly to talk about human trafficking in Wyoming,” says Stevens.

“CCCFV has also started the only county-wide human trafficking task force in the whole state.”

That task force represents almost every agency that could be involved in a human trafficking case, including the Sheriff’s Office and every town police department, Highway Patrol, Public Health, Crook County Medical Services District, Keyhole State Park, the cities and the County Attorney’s Office.

“Everything that we do in our quarterly meetings here in Crook County I take to our membership meetings at the state, so the other agencies can start their own human trafficking task force teams. We’re doing the work for them,” says Stevens.

“The nice thing about us is that we have such good working relationships with all the entities that would be involved with a human trafficking victim or offender.”

Having a task force in place means that, if a victim is identified in Crook County, it no longer matters which link in the chain first encounters them. He or she will instantly have access to the resources of every part of the team, from medical help to legal representation and beyond.

Part of the reason for the task force, says Stevens, is that human trafficking is a hard nut to crack for law enforcement. Often, particularly if the victims are scared of their abusers, they either refuse to acknowledge what is happening or disappear.

“The issue is that, when we identify victims of human trafficking, they don’t stay. They’re not good witnesses to testify in court, so we don’t see that prosecution,” she says.

“I do feel like law enforcement has done some major work to understand that prostitution is very rarely a choice. There are a lot of human trafficking victims in the sex industry,” adds McGuinness.

“I’ve seen some incredible work from law enforcement trying to figure out the best way to help a victim.”

To further Crook County’s efforts, CCFV has also paid for training for local law enforcement.

“This is still so new to all of us. Victims of human trafficking don’t want to be identified and they’re not going to say they are victims – they’re going to say they chose that lifestyle,” says Stevens.

CCFV urges parents of young adults to educate themselves and make sure their children are aware of the dangers. McGuinness says she understands the topic of human trafficking is a difficult one and that parents will naturally feel the urge to protect their children from hearing about it.

“If they can look past whatever interpretation they have of their town, whatever biases they have and how sick it makes them feel so that they can educate their child, the more aware people are, the better chance they have to make a more educated guess,” she says.

“The more I talk to young people, the more I see they know. They’re hearing, and they understand, which is incredible.”

If a young person is approached by a stranger with a “too good to be true” offer, says Stevens, it’s ok to walk away or even to scream for help. Listen to your intuition and always keep loved ones appraised of your whereabouts and plans.

Stevens also recommends, before using an Uber or getting in a vehicle with someone you don’t know well, let them know you are taking a picture of their license plate or ID and sending it to a friend or parent. An innocent person will not be bothered by this, but someone with nefarious intentions will be.

CCFV is available to provide more information or advice. If you need assistance with a human trafficking issue, the national hotline can be contacted at 888-373-7888 or by texting HELP or INFO to 233733.