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Jessica Arneson, Fargo, Published February 13 2014

Letter: Time to strengthen ND human trafficking laws

Last winter, during a band excursion, my teenage daughter was snowed in at a Mandan, N.D., hotel with a group of fellow band students. In the wee hours of the night, she and her roommates heard a woman crying out in pain, followed by a man’s voice saying, “If you make another noise, I’m going to break your (expletive) arm!” I shuddered as my daughter came home two days later and explained how, after calling the front desk for help, the girls watched though their door as a hotel security guard investigated the situation, only to tell the group of three men and one young woman, clad only in a T-shirt and panties, to keep down the noise, after being assured by the group of men that “everything is fine.”

Conventional wisdom of yesteryears would cast blame and disgust on this young woman for placing herself in such a vulnerable situation. But today we understand that the black market sex trafficking industry is a convoluted underworld where young girls and women from all over the country are tricked, lured, threatened and outright forced into a life that robs them of any dignity, freedom, power or future.

Unfortunately, we do not know the fate of this young woman. While it is an assumption that trafficking was involved, it is clear that she was not in control of the situation. It is also clear that the security guard was not equipped to either recognize red flags or act on them. Imagine if he would have pulled that young woman aside and asked her in private if she was OK, if she was safe, if she needed some help.

Last week, following the rollout of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s, D-Minn., Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (co-sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.) to address trafficking at a national level, our state’s legislative women’s caucus made the decision to work to strengthen North Dakota’s lax laws during the 2015 legislative session. It is my hope that we can build on our skeleton of existing trafficking laws to provide awareness and training for industries and professionals who come in contact with traffickers and their “customers.”

It is also my hope that any new laws will address the demand side of the issue. It has been widely reported that the average age of a girl who is trafficked for the sex industry is 14 years old. What control does a 14-year-old girl have over any situation involving a grown man? Or, for that matter, anyone who has been stripped of their dignity, been drugged and/or beaten down?

It is time to treat “customers” as the criminals they are. The current culture of western North Dakota has been referred to tongue-in-cheek lately as “like the Old West.” But, this is not the Old West; this is North Dakota, and in North Dakota we protect our women and girls and we value the safety of our communities and the dignity of our people.

Thank you, North Dakota Women’s Caucus members, for taking a stand and saying “Not in our state, not on our watch.”