Human Trafficking Awareness Month: trafficking can occur in rural areas

Published: Jan. 9, 2023 at 5:57 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - For some, the appeal of small towns usually stems from a perception of safety. Everyone seems to know everyone, it’s quiet and peaceful. But even in sleepy towns with one stoplight, bad things can happen.

To many North Dakotans, the state’s beauty is obvious. Like the people who live here. It’s proud, but not boastful, peaceful but strong. But out on the prairie, there can be danger and secrets. Human trafficking is one of the not so easy to spot crimes, as victims are usually manipulated by their trafficker and can have many reasons for not coming forward.

“I think we understand in rural communities with that shame that stigma everybody knows everybody so you’re maybe not going to want to share. Belief, not everyone believes you, some people still think you do it to yourself,” said Sarah Johnston, the central navigator with the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force.

According to record-keeping by the task force, more than 80% of victims of human trafficking in North Dakota are North Dakota residents and often the victims are related to or know their trafficker.

“The number one type of trafficking we’re seeing right now is familial trafficking, where it’s a family member that’s the trafficker. 50% of people are trafficked by people they know, so it’s not always that stranger. It can be a family member, a boyfriend, girlfriend, or someone they meet online,” said 31:8 Project Founder Stacy Shaffer in October.

When asked how people can recognize sex or labor trafficking, Sarah Johnston explains it’s not always about asking someone about anything suspicious but really listening to what they choose to disclose, and most importantly believing what they tell you.

“You wouldn’t want to share your worst day, why ask someone to share theirs,” adds Johnston.

Human trafficking can seem like a “big city problem,” but Shaffer says it is happening in rural communities in North Dakota. Experts say the most effective way to combat the problem is to be aware and listen to what those around us are saying.

If you are or know someone who is a victim of human trafficking, visit the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force website or the 31:8 Project website for more resources.