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ND agencies putting state funding to work to combat human trafficking

Photo illustration by Benjamin Edwards photography

BISMARCK – North Dakota will soon have more staff fighting human trafficking and victims will have better access to emergency housing, legal help and other services using new state grants.

The state recently awarded about $1.15 million in human trafficking grants that were set aside during last year’s legislative session. Those dollars, along with federal funding recently awarded, will address needs not previously met for victims of human trafficking in North Dakota.

“Our philosophy when we gave the grants out was to make sure we had a comprehensive continuum of services,” said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. “That starts with training for law enforcement, with emergency housing and then assistance for things individual victims might need like critical education, addiction treatment, mental health services and legal services.”

Related: Read Forum News Service's extensive coverage on "Trafficked" here.

Victim advocates dedicated to working with human trafficking victims will be in place in Williston, Minot, Bismarck and Fargo, with funding for travel to do outreach to surrounding communities.

“We can’t have a program in every community, so we need to have people who are trained and will go out in the field,” Stenehjem said.

Emergency housing will be more available, with Youthworks providing shelter for trafficking victims up to age 22 in Bismarck and Fargo.

Through a federal grant, Youthworks is working to fill housing gaps in other communities by designating “host homes” that will be licensed to provide emergency housing for youth victims and adults up to age 22.

For more stories on human trafficking, click here.

The homes will be in Williams, Ward and Mountrail counties, communities highly affected by an influx of commercial sex ads that followed the oil activity, as well as Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Fargo and Moorhead, Minn.

A two-year grant of more than $540,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families  - one of three grants awarded nationwide - will help fund the program.

“My vision for those funds was that we have trafficking issues across the state, especially in our oil region, where we cannot possibly afford to build a shelter because of the cost,” said Youthworks Executive Director Melanie Heitkamp.

Adult victims of human trafficking will continue to be co-located at domestic violence shelters across the state, with some shelters designating separate living areas specifically for trafficking victims, said Janelle Moos, executive director of CAWS North Dakota, which represents the 20 domestic violence programs in the state.

Nearly $106,000 was awarded  to Legal Services of North Dakota to dedicate staff to assist human trafficking victims statewide. The legal help could include immigration assistance, helping a victim get a criminal record expunged or pursuing civil action against traffickers.

“It’s one of the most significant areas of need victims have,” Moos said.

Meanwhile, $1.5 million in federal grants announced last fall has allowed North Dakota to hire two full-time navigators to connect victims with the right services. Melissa Williams, a navigator who works from Youthworks in Fargo, started last week to help eastern North Dakota victims. A navigator who will work from the Minot domestic violence shelter starts later this month to assist victims in oil-producing areas, Moos said.

“These two positions are really key and essential,” Moos said.

In all, the North Dakota Legislature set aside $1.25 million in one-time funding for human trafficking services, with $750,000 designated for oil-producing areas. Nearly $100,000 in dollars for western North Dakota are still available and will be awarded during the biennium to address gaps in service, Stenehjem said.

“We have to be able to come to the next legislative session, explain exactly what we did with the funding, what kind of services we provided, and, especially now with the fiscal situation being what it is, be able to determine the need for any further funding,” Stenehjem said.

The state awarded nearly $110,000 to the Minot Community Foundation, which is managing the funds for 4her North Dakota. The dollars will help CEO Windie Lazenko, a sex trafficking survivor, continue doing outreach to victims as well as bring in additional training.

Lazenko had requested about $500,000 to also establish a new four-bed crisis shelter and drop-in center for human trafficking victims.

Moos, who served on a committee that made recommendations on the grant awards, said committee members thought the best use of the one-time state dollars was to support crisis centers with infrastructure already in place.

The breakdown of the state grant dollars:

- $395,000 for Youthworks in Bismarck, which shares those dollars with partner agencies the Abused Adult Resource Center, the Central Dakota Forensic Nurse Examiners and the Dakota Children’s Advocacy Center

- $394,000 for Youthworks in Fargo, which is sharing those dollars with partners the YWCA Cass Clay, the Rape and Abuse Crisis Shelter and the Red River Children’s Advocacy Center

- $106,000 for Legal Services of North Dakota

- $110,000 for 4her North Dakota through the Minot Community Foundation

- $79,000 for the Family Crisis Shelter in Williston

- $72,000 for the Domestic Violence Crisis Shelter in Minot

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