By Rep. Kristi Noem
Human trafficking is something I always knew was out there, but like many, I thought of it as a problem that happens in Europe or Southeast Asia, not in America — let alone in Sioux Falls. That’s simply not the case.
Human trafficking is happening in our backyard. And as a parent, an aunt, a friend, it terrifies me that this evil is out there.
Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are trafficked throughout the world, and as many as 300,000 children are at risk of becoming victims every year in the United States alone. Often, victims are exploited for sexual purposes. In other cases, however, they are used as forced labor.
The child’s trafficker can come in all shapes and sizes. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that “traffickers can be family members, acquaintances, pimps, employers, smugglers and strangers.” There are reports of traffickers targeting and grooming kids at their schools, at shopping malls and in their homes. It doesn’t just happen in dark alleys.
President Kennedy often referred to this quote when calling for action: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We all have an opportunity to do something and to invoke change.
First and foremost, it’s important to learn the red flags that indicate human trafficking. Is someone you know not free to come and go as they wish from their home or workplace? Do they owe a large debt they can’t pay off? Are they anxious, depressed, submissive, or tense? Take these signs seriously. If you have concerns, use the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.
You also can volunteer to do victim outreach or donate funds to a local safe house. Do it as part of an officewide philanthropy project, a student-led service event or a faith-based outreach effort.
Building awareness is critical. A lack of understanding has meant victims of human trafficking have been mistaken for prostitutes, migrant farm workers and runaway youth. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about the issue. Talk about it with co-workers, your spouse, even your kids.
I’ve been focused on building awareness as well. Today, I’m holding the first Justice Against Slavery Summit. We’ve brought together researchers, national advocacy organizations, advocates from the Native American community, school administrators and others so each group could educate others on the problems they face and the approaches they’re taking to eliminate trafficking in South Dakota.
Awareness, however, must be accompanied by action. The Justice Against Slavery Summit gives us an opportunity to build awareness, but I’m also hopeful that we’ll leave today’s conference with additional ideas on how to combat this industry.
I’m proud that progress already is underway and optimistic this summit will help build momentum. The South Dakota Legislature, for instance, is taking steps to improve our state laws, and I’ll be working on the federal level so law enforcement officials can more effectively go after the criminals and protect the victims.
Additionally, I’ve been in frequent talks with members of leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, and they have assured me that sex trafficking will be on the agenda this year. Some of the provisions that we’ll be taking a look at are bills that I’ve formally put my support behind.
The Stop Exploitation Through Sex Trafficking Act, for instance, would establish a National Safe Harbor Law so minors engaged in prostitution are treated as victims, not criminals.
Children in foster care are at greater risk than others when it comes to being victims of sex trafficking, so I’m working on legislation that improves how states monitor and share information about children in foster care. We’re hopeful this will better look out for these kids and stop predators from trafficking children who are under the state’s care.
We all can play a role in combating human trafficking. With awareness and action, this evil will not triumph.