MISSOULA — It's low risk, high yield. Unlike cocaine, the commodity is reusable.
"If I have a human, I have her again and again and again," said Detective Guy Baker of the Missoula Police Department.
Human trafficking is the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, behind only illegal drugs, said Baker, who has worked on roughly a dozen investigations since 2010.
People are commonly trafficked for sex and labor, and every year some 300,000 children are sold in the U.S., according to the Montana attorney general.
"Sex trafficking victims are very unique. They pose some real challenges for law enforcement," Baker said.
This year, the Montana Legislature approved House Bill 89, sponsored by Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, and backed by Attorney General Tim Fox. The bill revamps the way law enforcement addresses trafficking.
At the same time the law is making it easier to crack down on perpetrators, the economy is fueling the industry. The trade follows the money, Dudik said, and for the time being, the money is in the Bakken oilfields.
"We've seen an increase (in sex trafficking) in Montana due to what's happening in eastern Montana," she said.
Even when activity in the Bakken slows, Attorney General Fox said law enforcement will hear more and more reports of suspected human trafficking. That's because criminals are increasingly online.
"The misuse, if you will, of the Internet provides not only a way in which human trafficking, and in particular sexual servitude, might be engaged in, but it's a way to lure young people into being abused and into being trafficked," Fox said.
In the future, he anticipates ramping up the focus on services available for victims, especially children. Fox said a single clearinghouse isn't in place, for instance, and he would like to see one that helps ensure law enforcement and the courts have access to resources available for victims.
"So particularly children, child victims of trafficking, can be provided with services more seamlessly," Fox said.
One challenge in addressing sex trafficking is that people commonly confuse it with prostitution, and they mistake the role of the participants.
In fact, most cases initially come in as prostitution, said Baker, who has worked federal and state cases. They don't always remain marked that way, though.
"These women are victims, and we don't treat them as victims often because I don't think we're recognizing that they're victims of trafficking. We just think they're prostitutes," Baker said.
The difference is a prostitute is willing, he said. If a pimp is involved, it's likely trafficking, and if a minor is involved, it's highly likely to be trafficking as well, he said.
"Kids usually don't come up with that on their own," Baker said.
Helping the victims and putting the perpetrators away is difficult, though, he said. For one thing, the people being pimped don't identify as victims, he said.
Secondly, pimps groom victims to distrust law enforcement. Thirdly, the criminals psychologically manipulate those they ensnare.
"They're in their head so they think, ‘If he gets arrested, what's going to happen to me, 'cause he's the only person that cares about me,’ ” Baker said.
So far, he said, roughly half of his cases have resulted in charges.
Dudik worked on HB89 with Deputy Attorney General and legislative liaison Jon Bennion. Among other provisions, it allows victims an affirmative defense.
"A person charged with prostitution, promoting prostitution, or another nonviolent offense committed as a direct result of being a victim of human trafficking may assert an affirmative defense that the person is a victim of human trafficking," reads the bill.
It also deems a victim's "past sexual behavior or reputation" generally inadmissible unless it's offered to prove a pattern of human trafficking by the defendant.
It mandates that perpetrators who buy or sell sex must register as sexual offenders upon conviction, a measure Dudik said has proved successful in other countries such as Sweden.
That's because the first thing a man asks when he's picked up is, "Will my wife find out?"
"This can clearly say that yes, they will find out, and it is a way to try to stop the demand for it," Dudik said.
The law is based on legislation from the Uniform Law Commission, said Dudik, also an attorney. The commission provides states with non-partisan and well-drafted legislation "that bring clarity and stability to critical areas" of state law.
It more clearly defines sex trafficking, and it has provisions that protect victims, similar to the rape shield law, she said. It also creates a legal framework for education.
"It creates more services for victims, and it also creates a fund that we'd like to use for education," Dudik said.
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She noted the Legislature didn't put money in the fund this session, but the bill created the account that allows the Attorney General's Office to accept donations or money from foundations.
Misconceptions abound when it comes to sex trafficking, she said. Many people imagine humans shipped to the U.S. from the Middle East or Asia, and many think only of female victims.
"What they don't realize is it's happening right here with Montanans, especially people in disadvantaged populations," Dudik said.
And men are sold, too.
According to the attorney general, the Soroptimist Club of Whitefish deserves credit for bringing the issue to the forefront in Montana.
"Soroptimists worldwide have been taking this on for some time. They're the reason that we're talking about this stuff today," Fox said.
The new law, which takes effect July 1, does much to help law enforcement prosecute sex trafficking, said Baker, who is deputized to work on federal cases as well as local ones.
The next step involves raising awareness among the public in general as well as law enforcement, according to both Dudik and Fox.
"What we heard repeatedly from pretty much everyone is we need to increase education," Dudik said.
To that end, she said, Bryan Lockerby and Dana Toole from the AG's office are available for trainings; they also worked on the bill, she said. She also would like to see forums that involve more professionals, from service providers to judges to investigators.
"I'm excited to see what Montana can do to stop this, because we've proven that we're pretty innovative with our responses so far," Dudik said.
The Attorney General's Office worked on raising public awareness in 2013 and 2014, and Fox said he believes education should continue for people across the spectrum.
Teens can learn to identify signs someone is a predator, law enforcement can spot signs of trafficking, and prosecutors can learn how to apply the new law.
"We will see more and more instances and reports of suspected human trafficking. It's kind of a cradle-to-grave approach (to the problem)," Fox said.
He also said it's important to get a better understanding of the treatment and help that's already available. Once the resources are collected in one place, he said, those working in the system can identify if any are lacking and direct victims to the right place.
"We need to do a better job with that, I believe," Fox said.
Rick and Pat Freeland operate a safe house for teenage victims of human trafficking, and it's listed as a resource on the attorney general's website. They see the need for more integration among groups addressing the problems associated with sex trafficking.
"Honestly, the biggest frustration for me is the lack of organization with the people who are trying to make this all happen," Rick said.
Across the nation, law enforcement officers are overwhelmed with the quantity of cases as well as the difficulties of prosecuting them, Rick said. He believes Montana officers such as Detective Baker in Missoula and Detective Adam Shanks in Helena are leading the way for the rest of the country.
"I think they're going to set the tone in how to handle trafficking," Rick said.
And the tone needs changing, Pat said. She said the young women who have been in the couple's care tell stories of dealing with police in other areas: "You know what they call it? Most police stations? When they pick up these girls? A trash run."
So far, they have not housed women from Montana, but Rick believes that's coming because of the increasing sex trade in the Bakken. The Freelands, who have opened up their home to people in trouble since their own grown daughters were children, have been invited to help set up a refuge in eastern Montana.
Across the country, few models for safe houses exist, Pat said. Usually, she said, young women end up in jail.
"If they're abused and damaged, they go to a mental institution," Pat said.
But there's encouraging news in the fight against sex trafficking, too. Fox said his agency's division of criminal investigation has worked with federal and local law enforcement officers to nab perpetrators in the Bakken.
"We have done a number of stings where we have been able to arrest both pimps and johns," Fox said.
Montana calls going into the Polaris Project hotline have gone up as well, a sign the attorney general said could mean outreach in the state has been a success. The Polaris Project is a global organization involved in the fight against human trafficking.
Also, Fox said, the issue is one that draws bipartisan support, as evidenced by HB89: "I'm grateful for the work of Rep. Dudik and all of the legislators, and thankful Gov. (Steve) Bullock signed this bill."