KALISPELL, Mont. — Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry, according to the International Labour Organization. It’s not just an international crisis, it’s a problem at the local level too.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as modern-day slavery. Traffickers use force to get labor or sex from their victims.
“It’s one of the most profitable businesses now in the underworld,” Flathead County Sheriff’s Detective Alan Brooks said.
According to data from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Montana has seen an increase in human trafficking activity since 2014. The center reported 13 potential human trafficking cases in 2014, 19 potential cases in 2015, 15 potential cases in 2016 and 27 potential cases in 2017.
“In a place like this, it can oftentimes be undetected,” Brooks said, explaining human trafficking often exists alongside other criminal activities and can be difficult to identify.
Women ages 18 to 26, runaway youth, the homeless and people raised in abusive environments are the most vulnerable to human trafficking, Brooks said.
The Sparrow’s Nest of northwest Montana works with a segment of that vulnerable population -- the Flathead Valley’s 350 homeless high school students -- to prevent human trafficking through education.
“(We’re) just making sure they’re educated and aware of the real threat out there,” Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana executive director Jerramy Dear-Ruel said.
Traffickers often lure victims through relationships, Brooks explained. What starts as a dating-type relationship “turns into coercion, fraud and controlling that person,” he said.
There are some indicators that a person is being trafficked, such as an age-inappropriate relationship and a controlling relationship.
“They don’t carry their own identification, they’re not allowed to talk. Usually the other person in the relationship is doing the talking for them,” Brooks said.
There are also physical signs, like malnutrition and bruises.
Brooks said the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office is “constantly” investigating human trafficking cases and tips.
“We’ve done operations in the past where we’ve advertised and then been able to reveal those that are creating the demand and the buying,” Brooks said.
While Dear-Reul said none of the kids he works with have been drawn into human trafficking, he said it’s still a problem.
“The fact of the matter that it still happens is a big reason that the awareness portion of it is definitely well needed,” he said.
If you are in a human trafficking situation or suspect a human trafficking situation, call local law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline for help and support at 1-888-373-7888.