Heitkamp, McCain Shed Light on Human Trafficking in ND

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Human trafficking can be likened to slavery in many ways, and it takes a concerted effort from normal people, law enforcement, and those with political clout to break people free.

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Cindy McCain, wife of Arizona Sen. John McCain, addressed the challenges North Dakota faces.

Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery with a global reach. And it can be found right here, in our own backyard.

"We know that a disproportionate number of children who are trafficked are runaways and a disproportionate number of runaway children have either been physically or sexually assaulted already in their life," said Heitkamp. "When they run away, they engage in what we call survival sex, which really just means they need a place to stay."

Lawmakers and activists are working to put the spotlight on the issue. More than 30 people from law enforcement and outreach organizations discussed some of the challenges in curbing the epidemic.

"This has gone completely underground and it has allowed people to want to buy children to feel like they are invisible," Heitkamp said.

The focus now is prevention. The state House passed three bills in the spring to increase funding for law enforcement, provide treatment services for victims and increase penalties for traffickers.

"If a trafficker sees a community as really strong on this issue and there is tough parts on it here in Bismarck and Pheonix or wherever, then they're going to go someplace else," said Cindy McCain, a human rights advocate. "And eventually they aren't going to be able to go anywhere."

"Don't think just because you ordered it online and you went to a hotel room instead of cruising the street where a cop can see you, that we are not going to catch you," Heitkamp said.

Creating "safe harbor" laws is another priority. A bill that will prevent minors from being prosecuted for prostitution, if they are a victim of sex trafficking, was signed into law in May.

According to humantrafficking.org, more than 14,000 people are victims of human trafficking in the U.S.