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NOEM: Trafficking victims need a place to go

It seems like every few weeks I open the newspaper and my heart sinks -- it's another story about human trafficking happening right here in South Dakota. At the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, during hunting season, in Indian Country and on the streets behind our schools, people are preying on vulnerable South Dakotans. They are preying on our kids.

Human trafficking is an issue I've written about frequently. I've spoken to many South Dakotans about why this issue matters so much to me, and they've shared their own passion to end trafficking and solutions to do so. One of the most common pieces of feedback I've received is that we need more places for survivors to go when they want to get out.

Nationwide, there are just 200 beds for underage trafficking survivors. If you do the math, that's only four per state. Sadly, that's not nearly enough.

While South Dakota has a number of domestic violence shelters, most are not trained to handle the unique challenges a trafficking victim faces -- namely that they are often sexually abused dozens of times per day by multiple people they do not know. We need to give kids a way out, but without a safe escape and a place to stay at night, it's easier for them to turn back to their traffickers.

On July 23, the U.S. House of Representatives took up and passed a bill I wrote that would help address the issues I've spoken to so many advocates in South Dakota about. The Human Trafficking Prevention, Intervention and Recovery Act opens existing grant programs to shelters looking to help trafficking survivors. I'm hopeful this will give advocates more resources to house trafficked children and get these young people started on their path to recovery.

In addition to helping address the shelter concerns, the legislation launches a review of all federal and state trafficking prevention activities, so policymakers can better understand what strategies are working -- and which ones aren't. My bill also requires an agency to take an inventory of existing federal anti-trafficking programs. This will help us make sure federal resources are being used where they are most needed.

The average age for a girl to enter into the commercial sex trade is 12 to 14 years old. For boys, it's 11 to 13. My son is 12. I can't imagine a child his age facing the kind of trauma that a trafficking victim goes through. They are just children.

These kids are not being targeted in dark alleys at night. They are being approached at the mall, at school and online. They are lured in with promises of love, gifts and stability that many children long for. We must take every opportunity we can to end this unconscionable industry. And where we were too late to prevent it from happening, we must intervene and help survivors recover.

Each of us can play a role in intervening. I encourage you to look for red flags in your community. A trafficked individual, for instance, may appear malnourished, show signs of physical abuse, seem submissive or depressed, withdraw from family and friends or rarely be allowed to come and go as they wish. Should you see any of these signs, contact local law enforcement or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

We all must do what we can to end trafficking.