Training underway to help employees, the public detect signs of sex trafficking

A young woman tells domestic violence advocates she feels trapped with an older man. He's the only person who can inject her with the heroin to which she's addicted.

Windie Lazenko, founder of 4her North Dakota, takes a selfie at Williston, N.D., truck stop to share with the organization Truckers Against Trafficking. Lazenko plans to do truck stop outreach to raise awareness about sex trafficking.

A young woman tells domestic violence advocates she feels trapped with an older man. He’s the only person who can inject her with the heroin to which she’s addicted.

“Abusive boyfriend,” the advocates conclude, and they set about trying to help her. They don’t see that his control of her may have an even darker purpose.

Elsewhere, a young woman tells her doctor she has had more than 500 sexual partners in her 19 years.

He writes it off as promiscuity.

Then there’s the man who parks a block away from a transitional living center where many former runaways and homeless young adults live.


Staff members see him as the possessive boyfriend of a resident, and they keep an eye out.

All were witnessing possible sex trafficking without initially realizing it.

Around North Dakota and the country, training is underway to help people identify potential trafficking in every interaction a victim may have with others. These incidents have been used as examples in training sessions where North Dakotans are getting crash courses on what forms sex trafficking can take and how to know when a victim may be right before their eyes. It’s part of a larger fight against a crime that many say has an everyday presence in the Bakken Oil Patch. A large part of the education in North Dakota requires overcoming a reluctance to believe that such a horrific crime can happen “in our backyard.”

Experts say the red flags are everywhere, if you’re aware.

“It’s one of the more perfect crimes against people because, I mean, it’s laced with coercion, it’s laced with social stigma,” said sociologist Tim Pippert, who has visited the Bakken from Augsburg College in Minneapolis in his research on the social effects of such rapid growth.

So it’s difficult, experts say, to identify trafficking victims who often don’t even know they’re victims or who are warned not to snitch, and with pimps who can be as good at manipulating others as they are at manipulating the women they control.

“If you haven’t seen it, realities are you’re looking in the wrong place,” said Joy Friedman with Breaking Free, a St. Paul organization that helps women trying to leave prostitution. “It’s right in front of your face, actually.”

 More than a controlling boyfriend-Darianne Johnson is a strong believer in eyes. She says you can tell a lot about a person that way. She once saw a victim of sex trafficking speak and couldn’t believe how dead she looked in her eyes.


“Her life was over.”

Highlighted by bright blue eyeshadow and blue-rimmed glasses, Johnson’s eyes conveyed hope. And she needs a full measure to counter the evil and abuse she sees every day as director of Dickinson’s domestic violence crisis center.

But now she’s seeing some of the ugliness and despair differently. Gathered with other advocates around a long table in the center’s conference room one August morning, she and her advocates reassess past cases, wondering ... could it have been trafficking?

Crisis centers across North Dakota are doing the same, looking for sex trafficking in cases they previously might have identified solely as violent relationships, rape or controlling boyfriends.

“A lot of times they don’t look at themselves as victims of human trafficking. So it’s difficult to get that out of them when that’s not how they see their situation,” says Nichole De Leon, an advocate at the Dickinson center. “They call him their boyfriend quite often, so you’re not assuming, ‘Well, that’s her pimp.’ ”

Discussing the case of an older man injecting a younger woman with heroin, a form of control, Johnson pauses.

“I never even thought of that as a trafficking case until just now,” she says.

Advocates across the state say they see possible sex trafficking only because they’re now looking for it.


At a sex trafficking summit in Bismarck this past November, Mark Heinert, a program manager at Youthworks there, described his lightbulb moment from about a year before.

A man would park about a block away when a certain woman was staying at the transitional living shelter, where many former runaways or formerly homeless people find shelter.

“Our first inclination is we’ve got ourselves a possessive boyfriend; we’ve gotta watch out,” Heinert said.
Staff members alerted law enforcement officers, and Heinert later found out the man was actually the woman’s pimp.

“That wasn’t necessarily as large of a flashing beacon for us,” he said, “you know, one year ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, as it feels like it is right now.”

 Seeing a victim-Fifteen years ago, Grant Snyder thought of prostitution the way many older beat cops did: It was a choice. The women were just drug addicts. They should get real jobs.

Now a sergeant with the Minneapolis Police Department, Snyder has trained thousands of officers, including hundreds in western North Dakota, on how trafficking can look.

“I didn’t always see a victim,” he said.

But after a few interactions with victims, like when he found a 16-year-old girl, who looked even younger, being prostituted out of a crack house, his views and his policing changed.


“That journey for me was really an opportunity for me to really see and challenge our own biases,” he said. “They don’t make us bad people; they just make us uninformed.”

Cops may already have opinions about prostitution and the women in that life, and past interactions with law enforcement can make a woman wary of them, too.

Snyder urges patience for cops handling trafficking cases, with victims who may feel ashamed or who may not yet accept that they have been exploited.

“One of the things I really try to teach cops is you’ve got a golden opportunity to be the one person in these kids’ lives that go into that situation and don’t ask for something in return,” he said. “Don’t go in there hoping they’ll make your case.”

Today, at trainings, sometimes after an overnight shift or on their day off, police officers are looking back and realizing they have seen sex trafficking. They just didn’t know it at the time.

“I’ve been around human trafficking more than I’ve realized and I think most law enforcement will say that,” said Art Walgren, the Watford City police chief, at a training there in October.

Learning the complex art of detecting and interacting with a sex trafficking victim is even harder in western North Dakota, where turnover and general busyness plague departments big and small.

“We have a lot of very hardworking law enforcement officers, very dedicated, but not always the most experienced,” McKenzie County State’s Attorney Jacob Rodenbiker said.


Many Oil Patch police and sheriff’s departments have a large number of officers in their 20s who are working their first law enforcement job.

The Williams County Sheriff’s Office has had turnover rates of between 12 and 17 percent each of the past four years, not including jail staff. Department administrators fear that turnover will be even greater after young, new hires, often from Minnesota or other states, gain experience and find jobs closer to home as the economy recovers.  

Deputy Jake Manuel, one of the recent hires in Williams County, said many deputies leave Williston after gaining experience because their significant others don’t want to live there or they get tired of living in an apartment in the boomtown where housing is scarce and expensive.

“If that’s your experience base, how do you expect somebody like that to be able to possess the kind of skills that they need to talk to a victim about what will arguably be the most shameful thing they’ll ever have to talk about?” Snyder said.

 At the Watford City training session, then-New Town Police Chief David Shawstad told the small crowd he may have witnessed trafficking just a few days before.

What started as a domestic dispute in a car had some red flags: The girl was much younger than the man, and she told police the man didn’t let her talk to anyone.

“One thing after another and it’s like, this is what it is,” Shawstad said.

With runaways being perhaps the most vulnerable to pimps, John Vanek, a retired San Jose Police Department lieutenant who now trains officers on trafficking, encouraged officers in his tour of western North Dakota last fall to “screen” girls when they return home to ask where they slept, how they ate.


“From what I learned today, it’s quite possible I have been in contact with trafficking victims and I didn’t connect it,” Burleigh County sheriff’s Detective Troy Fleck said during Vanek’s day in Dickinson.

At a training session conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Bismarck last fall, North Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Chad Hermanson looked back on an interaction more than a year old and thought about what he’d do differently today.

When he pulled over an SUV, the 36-year-old potbellied man just didn’t match the 18-year-old blonde girl sleeping in the backseat, he told fellow law enforcement officers. But the man said she was his girlfriend.

The girl had only a curling iron for what they said was a trip to Washington state. She would be back by the weekend for her high school prom. Thinking the man was trafficking drugs, Hermanson sent in the information and, not having anything else to hold him on, let him drive on.

Today he says he would’ve taken the girl aside to ask more questions.

“I missed it; I wasn’t looking for it,” he said. “I wasn’t in the mode for sex trafficking.”

Since moving to North Dakota from Florida in the fall of 2013, Windie Lazenko has worked to increase awareness of sex trafficking, including giving talks for church and school groups. Lazenko founded 4her North Dakota and is assisting sexually exploited women and girls in western North Dakota.

She has led some training sessions in the Bakken using materials provided by an organization called Truckers Against Trafficking.

Lazenko said 4her North Dakota plans to do outreach at area truckstops to equip truckers and business owners to identify victims and how to respond.

“Truckers have an amazing ability to call the hotline and identify victims,” Lazenko said.

 Everyday interactions-Private businesses also have implemented training to help employees detect victims.

Minneapolis-based Jefferson Lines is working with Snyder on a training guide for bus drivers, dispatchers and others to handle situations that just don’t seem right.

“All forms of transportation have been affected by this,” said Bonnie Buchanan, a former vice president with the bus company.

From Amtrak, which has since 2012 trained its employees in signs of trafficking, to the Department of Homeland Security’s “Blue Lightning” campaign for airline personnel, workers in various modes of transportation are joining the fight.

Some hotels and motels, too, mandate training for employees. But the bigger chain companies -- the ones that don’t want sex trafficking attached to their names -- are more likely to educate employees than the smaller establishments, where a “Do Not Rent” blacklist might be as involved as they get.

From the corporate cafeteria at the Carlson Center outside Minneapolis, Brenda Schultz explained how different employees would see trafficking differently.

The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, where Schultz is the director of responsible business for the Americas, includes the Radisson and Country Inn and Suites chains.

On the front end at reception, a victim may not make eye contact, the man may speak for her and the pair might not have luggage, Schultz said.

Within the rooms, housekeepers may see an excessive use of towels, or a lot of cellphones.

Schultz once had a meeting set with Sgt. Snyder, but it fell through.

“All of a sudden, I get a call and he’s like, ‘I’m in North Dakota tracking two girls from Minneapolis,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, of course.’ ”

 Seeing the signs in a patient-A majority of more than 100 sex trafficking victims surveyed came into contact with health care professionals during their victimization, according to a 2014 study.

None of those surveyed was rescued as a result of their interactions with health care personnel.

Dr. Jeff Barrows, an Ohio obstetrician and gynecologist who has trained health care professionals in signs of trafficking since 2006, said he too missed signs early in his career.

One patient, a 19-year-old woman, told him she’d been with more than 500 sexual partners.

Barrows said he wrote the woman off as promiscuous, not asking further questions.

“Those biases can cause us to jump to conclusions or assumptions before we really should," Barrows said. “So we will misclassify.”

Emergency room workers and other practitioners can be in the unique position of seeing a person one on one, or even seeing physical effects of trafficking, such as pimp tattoos or cigarette burns.

“I think they come away thinking something very weird is going on but ‘I don’t know what it is,’ ” Barrows said. “You can’t know what it is if you haven't had the category for it created in your mind.”

The Department of Health and Human Services launched a pilot program last year to train health care workers to identify victims of human trafficking. Training sessions were held in Williston and New Town, N.D., in September, along with much larger cities Atlanta, Boston, Houston and Oakland, Calif.

“We have a problem,” Barrows told health care workers in New Town. “We have a majority of these victims that come in contact with us and we’re missing them. That’s horrific.”

A victim’s perpetrator may insist on coming into the exam room with her, providers learn, and the victim herself may be overly submissive. She may not know her address, or even what city she’s in, as the stops on a pimp’s circuit begin to bleed together.

In Williston, Mercy Medical Center CEO Matt Grimshaw said the hospital has not confirmed any of its patients were victims of human trafficking, but hospital officials felt it was important to receive the training on identifying victims.

“If there can be one safe haven for somebody who’s in that situation to quietly reach out for help,” he said, “it may be when they’re in a hospital or they’re in a clinic receiving treatment.”

Mark Bekkedahl, director of mission at Mercy Medical Center, said some of the red flags -- like a patient not knowing her address -- would not necessarily indicate trafficking in Williston, where a high percentage of the population is transient.

“I think the training heightened our sensitivity to take a step back and ask that question, ‘Is this just weird because it’s Williston, or is there something going on?’ ”

 ‘The head of the monster’-While training is underway in various sectors, many say the general public, with more eyes than any one company or police department, is what really needs education.

“They see a lot more than we do,” McKenzie County sheriff’s Deputy Troy White Owl said.

About half of states require signs bearing the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline number be posted in certain places, according to Polaris, a national anti-trafficking organization that runs the hotline. In Texas, for example, bars must post it.

One proposed law for this legislative session requires the signs in North Dakota’s rest stops and hospitals.

Officers, meanwhile, are recording any incidents so if a case is being built down the road, investigators can look at history and see any other interactions with a trafficker or victim, be it a traffic stop or an arrest.

Dickinson police Det. Sgt. Kylan Klauzer said officers there are learning to look a little closer, like inside the car at a traffic stop.

“You got a car and you got one guy and three girls, and maybe they’re from out of state and their stories don't match up completely as to why they’re here,” he said. “Through the course of those types of things, you can figure out that OK, well maybe they’re up here for prostitution.”

At weekly intelligence meetings across agencies, Klauzer said, the names and other details of those incidents are discussed.

“The females’ names are important, but you’re always trying to look for the head of the monster here,” he said, “so who is our person that we maybe believe is bringing them in here?”


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