January was Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month, but organizations in Sioux Falls who work with victims of these crimes are making sure people are aware of these issues all year long.
Human and sex trafficking is one of the largest illegal industries in the world, second only to drug trafficking. It generates an estimated $32 billion dollars each year, according to UNICEF. While it might seem like something that happens everywhere but home, hundreds of victims are being trafficked right here in our area
"Most people you talk to now will at least talk about, 'oh, it happens in the oil fields,' or pheasant hunting or especially Sturgis," said Michelle Markgraf, executive director at The Compass Center in Sioux Falls. "What they need to realize though, [is] it's not [just] happening on these one-off events. It's happening every single day in South Dakota."
"It's happening all over the United States and throughout South Dakota," U.S. House Rep. Kristi Noem told KSFY News. "Most of the folks I visit with think it only happens around big events or isolated incidents, but that's just not true."
Poor rural counties and access to major interstates makes South Dakotans particularly vulnerable.
"We actually have four of the poorest counties located in the U.S. in South Dakota any time you have that kind of vulnerability with income traffickers know how to prey upon that," said Becky Rasmussen, the executive director at Call to Freedom.
"Because we have the two interstates [I-29 and I-90] that bisect our city, a lot of the trafficking comes up through those on the way to North Dakota and on the way out west river," Markgraf explained. "Sometimes its right here in Sioux Falls too."
The way traffickers recruit, has also changed.
"Social media gives them another avenue to recruit through all angles," said Rasmussen.
Rasmussen said that traffickers target vulnerable men and women, and also men who they want to help them recruit.
"They'll private message them, they become friends with them," she said. "They will look for somebody who maybe is having a rough day, [or] they don't feel like their family cares about them. Teens put those emotions out there."
And then traffickers do what's called, "groom" them.
"They'll respond to them, they'll connect with them, they'll actually go as far to set up dates with them," Rasmussen said. "And it's not just men there are also females that are recruiting."
Markgraf said that she works with a "task force" in Sioux Falls that helps identify social media and other apps that are being used to traffick victims, but each time they meet and identify them, there's usually an entirely new list.
Noem, an advocate for trafficking victims who has worked on legislation regarding trafficking for years, said she's currently sponsoring a bill that would help clear criminal records of victims who have non-violent crimes on the background checks -- like prostitution or drug-related charges. Noem said she's regularly heard from victims that when they try to begin healing after being trafficked, it's nearly impossible to get a job or finding housing that will allow them with a criminal record.
Governor Daugaard just signed a that bill (H.B. 1118) back on March 10, that eliminates the need for prosecutors to prove minors were forced or coerced into trafficking - when they pursue cases against their traffickers.