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Human trafficking victim advocates push for increased state funding

Sgt. Mike Bolme of the Bismarck Police Department testifies Jan. 15, 2019, at the state Capitol in support of a bill that would provide state funding to combat human trafficking. Amy Dalrymple . Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK -- Human trafficking victim advocates are pushing for increased funding as North Dakota lawmakers work to finalize state budgets.

The Senate voted to spend about $1.63 million on human trafficking victim services, but House members reduced the funding to $1 million.

A House-Senate conference committee will meet on Monday, April 22, to work on a compromise for the spending level, which is part of the budget for the Attorney General’s Office.

Christina Sambor, a lobbyist for programs that serve human trafficking victims, said $1 million is not enough to meet the needs.

“We’d be looking at cuts to programs,” Sambor said.

The North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force served 110 victims of human trafficking in 2018, or 88 adults and 22 children. Nearly 80 percent of the victims were North Dakota residents.

Lawmakers established the task force in 2015 and approved the first funding for human trafficking victims, dedicating $1.25 million for the 2015-17 budget cycle. The level of funding was reduced to $825,000 for 2017-19, when less state funds were available.

The funding, which is awarded through a grant process through the Attorney General’s Office, is distributed to victim service providers statewide, such as domestic violence and sexual assault programs and Youthworks, which serves runaway and homeless youth.

The nearly $1.63 million approved by the Senate would allow current programs to continue and provide for an increase in prevention work, such as outreach to juvenile detention centers or other at-risk populations, said Sambor, who works for Youthworks.

“We really want to be able to have enough staff that we’re not only helping people who have already experienced this, but also intervening with people that we know are at highest risk,” she said.

Sgt. Mike Bolme of the Bismarck Police Department, who testified in support of the funding, said, as awareness of human trafficking has increased, law enforcement has encountered more victims.

“We’re using those funds and we’re using those services more and more often,” Bolme said.

The state funding also is used for matching dollars for federal grants.

Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, a member of the conference committee, said he anticipates members will work toward a compromise to increase the level of funding.

“We’re trying to give them what they need to make these programs work,” Kempenich said.

The conference committee meets at 9:30 a.m. Monday in the Harvest Room of the Capitol. The funding is part of Senate Bill 2003.