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Stand Up ND: The Fight Against Sex Trafficking in North Dakota

The combination of oil, money and men has opened North Dakota up to sex trafficking. Prosecutors have been working hard to put sex traffickers behind bars. But that effort has been hampered by the unwillingness of many young sex workers to testify. Now a group of organizations has joined forces to try to change that.


Last November the state’s top prosecutor, Tim Purdon, got big news about sex trafficking in North Dakota. His office had set up a sting to find out how much demand there was for sex with underage girls. You might not know that sex traffickers specialize in selling the bodies of young women and girls. So prosecutors from Purdon’s office placed phoney ads for sex with 14-year- old girls online.

Late on a Sunday evening one of Purdon’s deputies called to say the sting was being shut down because demand in the small city of Dickinson was more than the jail could handle. For US Attorney Purdon the incident was a wakeup call.

Tin Purdon: That there were 11 guys on a Friday night on the internet saying Hmm I wonder if I can pay somebody money to have sex with a 14 year old girl. That is a lot of demand in a city the size of Dickinson. Basic economics teaches us if you have that level of demand for a service you are going to have supply.

Narr: The arrests confirmed that demand for underage sex is high. But getting evidence to convict sex traffickers is difficult. Purdon says that’s because convictions depend on the willingness of victims to testify. But many young sex workers won’t testify because they feel a loyalty to their trafficker that is based on total dependence.

TP: in many instances the reason that these victims stay with the trafficker is that trafficker is the only person providing them with services they need to survive.

Windie Lazenko knows first hand how hard it is to leave. She was brought into the sex trade when she was 13 years old and it took almost 20 years for her to get out. She says the relationship between victims and their traffickers is very complex. I interviewed her recently at a conference about sex trafficking.

WL: for the victim it’s not simple. But for just the lay-person to understand the skewed sense of loyalty they feel for the trafficker. They’ve been brainwashed, forced, coerced - just loyalty until you die.

Now, a coalition of law enforcement agencies and social service providers is trying to help sex workers break free and start over. FUSE is the name of the coalition, which stands for A Force to end Human Sexual Exploitation.

The coalition’s victim-centered approach starts with legal protection for young sex workers. Prostitution is a crime in North Dakota. But, Purdon says, the policy of his office, towards girls and women suspected of selling sex through force or fraud has changed.

TP: The policy of my office will be that we will treat victims of human trafficking as victims and not as defendants.

Now, instead of taking victims to jail, officers try to bring them to shelters where they can access food, medical care and counseling. The hope is that eventually – with enough time away – they’ll feel strong enough to testify against their traffickers.

Windie Lazenko says she wishes she had been offered help back when she was caught in the sex trade.

WL: Back in the day there were no services. I mean I was out of runaway homes and treatment facilities that could barely even identify or treat my eating disorder ..not even touching on the fact that I had been sold through trafficking. So I was really alone through the journey of trying to leave.

Purdon says his office will continue arresting the buyers and helping the victims in order to go after the bad guys -

TP: The commercial traffickers – the people who are in the business of selling other human beings for sex.

For Prairie Public I’m Meg Luther Lindholm.