Montana law will be changed 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 priorities, the anti-trafficking bills are a notable exception. Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, introduced Senate Bill 147 that makes crucial changes in criminal law to punish the perpetrators of modern day 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 Zolnikov, 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 businesses that offer massage 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 businesses where the menu includes sex acts. The women working at these 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 support from many lawmakers. Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point, worked with Zolnikov 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 federal charges of pimping 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, FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter is the only officer in Montana working full time against trafficking.
• 89 teens and adolescents in Billings have identified themselves as trafficking victims to Tumbleweed in the past three years alone. These young people, most of them from Billings, had been forced or coerced to sell their bodies for sex, according to Georgia Cady of Tumbleweed.
At Tumbleweed, Cady sees "rampant survival sex." Adolescents and teens who don't have a safe place to stay sell themselves for food and a warm place to sleep, she said. Tumbleweed's anti-trafficking program offers these vulnerable teens and preteens safety and services to get off the streets and away from their predator.
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.
Thirty years ago, women stood on downtown Billings street corners offering sex for money. The streetwalkers are long gone but sex for hire continues through internet ads, massage parlors and spas, Walter told the crowd in MSUB's Peaks to Plains Park on Thursday. A trafficker may make $500 a day off one woman in Billings, and control her life so completely that he even dictates what she has for dinner.
"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 because she had no alternative. Sometimes the trafficker is a family member or a boyfriend. (Tumbleweed reports that half of teen victims they've worked with were trafficked by a "friend" or family member.) After months or years, selling her body seems normal to her.
"This is not what they chose," Walter said. "They were forced."
The Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force and their colleagues statewide did a remarkable job of raising awareness in the Legislature and with the public. Law enforcement officers, victim advocates and prosecutors strongly supported the legislation.
Montana has momentum for cracking down on human trafficking. Billings cannot tolerate the exploitation of trafficking victims any longer. Now that we know what goes on behind closed doors and opaque windows with 24-hour neon "open" signs, we must act to protect our children and our sisters. Thanks to the lawmakers and Bullock for providing tools to stop traffickers in Montana.