The laws of Montana will change next month to protect children and vulnerable adults from predators who would force them to sell their bodies to survive. The human trafficking legislation that Gov. Steve Bullock is expected to sign in coming weeks is one of the 2019 Legislature's greatest public safety achievements.
The Yellowstone County delegation too seldom works together on local priority, but the anti-trafficking bills are a notable exception. Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, introduced Senate Bill 147 that make crucial changes in criminal law to punish the perpetrators of modern days slavery while protecting their victims. Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, carried SB147 in the House where it received overwhelming bipartisan support. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and deputy attorneys on his staff assisted in drafting this bill to take on a crime that is more pervasive in Billings than anywhere else in the state.
Rep. Daniel Zonikov, R-Billings, carried House Bill 749, which will fund the first-ever Montana law enforcement investigators dedicated to stopping human trafficking — two officers in the state Criminal Investigation Bureau in the Department of Justice. Zolinkov's bill requires all businesses offering massages to post the licenses of all persons working there as massage therapists and also authorizes Montana law enforcement officers to enter these businesses to check compliance with the license requirement. Those provisions are aimed at illicit massage parlors and spas where the menu includes sex acts. The women working at such brothels typically were forced into this type of work early in their lives, often as adolescents. Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, carried HB749 in the Senate.
The success of SB147 and HB749, depended on many lawmakers. Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point, worked with Zonikove the anti-trafficking legislation he sponsored. Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, introduced a bill designed to allow law enforcement officers to trace the massage parlor owners who enrich themselves by exploiting other people. Karjala's bill was tabled in committee, so there's more work to be done in the next legislature.
It's no coincidence that Billings lawmakers took the lead:
- Earlier this month, a Billings man was arrested on charges of prostituting two women at King Spa and A Spa in Billings.
- The FBI has reported that there are still 13 suspected illicit spas or massage parlors operating in Billings. The FBI has exactly one Montana agent dedicated to enforcing laws against human trafficking. Until the new state unit is operating, Special Agent Brandon Walter is the only officer in Montana working full time against trafficking.
Walter and Cady were among several speakers at the second annual Red Sand Project Thursday in Billings. Billings Zonta Club and the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force organized the event on the Montana State University Billings campus to raise awareness of trafficking.
Speakers included two women who survived sex trafficking and now work to help others escape. They emphasized that predators are able to find and enslave victims because of many factors.
The prevelance of pornography in the internet age warps perspectives on healthy, normal sex. For many people, porn is their sex education. The United States produces and downloads more child porn than any other country on earth. Children are abused for pornography.
Thirty years ago, women stood on downtown Billings street corners offering sex for money. The streetwalkers are no more but sex for hire continues through internet ads and in local massage parlors and spas, Walter told the crowd in MSUB's Peaks to Plains Park Thursday. A trafficker may make $500 a day off one woman, and control her life so completely that he even dictates what she has for dinner.
The sex customers Walter had encounter in Billings investigations range from a 19-year-old living in his parents' basement to a wealthy businessman with a home on a golf course.
Some of the sex workers at illicit Billings spas have been in the business so long that they aren't considered young enough to work in larger cities, so they are brought to Billings, Walter said.
"Billings, Montana, has tolerated this type of activity," Walter said.
"We need to get prostitution out of our vocabulary," he said, explaining that every trafficking victim he's met was forced to have sex for money at some time in her life. Sometimes the trafficker is a family member or a boyfriend. After months or years, selling her body is "normalized" for her.
"This is not what they chose," Walter said. "They were forced."
At Tumbleweed, Cady sees "rampant survival sex." Adolescents and teens who don't have a safe place to stay sell themselves for food and shelter.
Tumbleweed offers these vulnerable teens and preteens safety and services
Reno Charette, director of the MSUB Native American Achievement Center, works to empower Native women. She sees the connection between human trafficking and the terribly high number of Native women and girls who go missing in Montana.
Tumbleweed in Billings started a program three years ago to help youth and young adults who had been forced or coerced to sell their bodies for sex. The program has already worked with 89 young people who said they were trafficking victims. Most are Billings teens, according to Georgia Cady of Tumbleweed.