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YWCA in Fargo dedicates two units to human trafficking victims

FARGO, N.D. -- Shelter workers at the YWCA here are dedicating two units for victims of sex and other human trafficking crimes, citing a rise in the number of such victims at the women's shelter, officials said Friday.

It's the latest move in a joint effort by the YWCA and other area nonprofits, law enforcement agencies and social services agencies to combat human trafficking throughout the region, said YWCA Executive Director Erin Prochnow.

"Do we have it all together? I would say no," Prochnow, of the task force convened about 18 months ago. "We're trying to tear down some roadblocks as they come up."

One such roadblock is determining which women at the shelter are the victims of human trafficking because people are often reluctant to report that they've been prostituted or performed other sex work, she said.

Of the 48 suspected human trafficking victims last year helped by the YWCA, only 15 would confirm it to YWCA workers, Prochnow said. That's in part because victims are worried about being criminally prosecuted, and they're worried about what their traffickers might do to them if they're caught, she said.

"There is this level of fear. 'If I cooperate with you, am I going to be dead?' " Prochnow said. "That's been a threat."

In order to make services easier to access for human trafficking victims, local nonprofits have also secured a grant to hire a "navigator" who'll be the primary point of contact as they seek help through the various public agencies in the region.

Youthworks recently received funding for the navigator position, said Executive Director Melanie Heitkamp, and she's already got a candidate in mind.

Youthworks, a nonprofit that works with runaway and homeless children, will house the navigator position. Bismarck's Youthworks also received funding for a navigator.

Youthworks leaders recently identified eight children and eight young adults in their program who were victims of sex trafficking, said Heitkamp. Two children other were victims of labor trafficking.

Youthworks faces similar problems getting children to confirm they've been human trafficking victims, Heitkamp said. One problem is that they've sometimes had their trust violated by the adult they needed the most, she said.

"There are circumstances where right in their own home, their parent may have trafficked them," she said.

Youthworks is also working to set up "safe homes," or homes that are set up and pre-equipped in high-risk counties across the state to take in child victims of human trafficking.

Anna Frissell, Executive Director of the Red River Children's Advocacy Center, has been coordinating the multiagency task force.

She said some children in North Dakota, like adult victims, feared that they would be charged criminally if they admit they were involved in prostitution.

Thanks to a new safe harbor law that went into effect Aug. 1, that's easing some fears, she said.

But children who come in for help at the advocacy center are unique in that they're coming in alone, rather than with a trusted loved one, Frissell said.

"It's just a whole different type of victim," she said. "It's a whole different type of evil you're dealing with."

All three women agreed that decriminalizing sex work, which has been pursued in some nations but not in the U.S., would be a way to remove some of the roadblocks to sex trafficking victims getting help.

"In terms of who's been charged more than anyone, historically, it's been more the victim," Heitkamp said. "(But) we're talking about survival sex. We're talking about women who have children, who are just trying to feed them."

While it's a controversial idea, Prochnow said, it's worth considering.

"It certainly will help women move on with their lives," she said.