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Fighting Human Trafficking in South Dakota

Jaden Miller

For many in South Dakota, human trafficking is a reality somewhere else. While it is a worldwide industry, many are surprised to learn it happens here. Learn how South Dakota leaders and professionals are fighting against human trafficking.

Elizabeth Talbot is an associate professor and director of the Master of Social Work Program at the University of South Dakota.  She has studied human trafficking for over a decade.  She calls human trafficking modern-day slavery. 

"Well, you know human trafficking is an international issue and it's been on the world stage since the late 1990's, so we're really in the second decade of research and dealing with this issue," Talbot says. 

She says research exists and many people are unaware of the realities of the crimes. Talbot adds that there are specific categories of human trafficking. 

"There's three types of trafficking: labor trafficking, sex trafficking, and the commercial exploitation of children for sexual purposes. All three of those are present in South Dakota."

"There's three types of trafficking: labor trafficking, sex trafficking, and the commercial exploitation of children for sexual purposes. All three of those are present in South Dakota," says Talbot.

Talbot says there are two events in South Dakota that can be defined as sex tourism.  One is hunting season, and the other is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. But she says while these are the most prominent events for trafficking, it can also happen closer to home. Reverend Kimberly Kaveny works for Be Free Ministries.  It's a Sioux Falls organization that works with trafficking victims. Kaveny says vulnerable teens are often approached through the internet.

"You can be on a Facebook, and if you don't have the right protection on your Facebook for instance, and you're a young teenager who's really vulnerable about where they're at and what they're struggling with, that can be propositioned by a trafficker. Groomed, we call it," says Kaveny. 

One example of online trafficking in South Dakota is the 2009 prostitution ring ran by Brandon Thompson in Tea. Thompson was recently prosecuted for his crimes. Kevin Koliner is the Appellate Chief of U.S. Attorney's Office in South Dakota. He says Thompson used online websites to advertise underage girls as prostitutes and sold the services online and then took the girls to various locations to have sex with men for money. Thompson now serves life in prison. 

Koliner says social workers, law enforcement officials, and health care providers need to be informed and know what to look for. 

Koliner was a featured speaker at a conference called "Human Trafficking in the Dakotas".   Nearly a hundred fifty professionals attend the day long symposium which includes panel discussions and keynote speakers. The conference is designed to educate the public on the investigation process, as well as how to identify individuals susceptible to these crimes.  But he says it takes time. 

He uses the Brandon Thompson case and details of the investigation.  He says it required extensive searching through phone records and various interviews to gather enough evidence for an arrest. 

Andrew McDade is a USD Masters student who works for Children's Home Society. He says he doesn't know much about human trafficking, but came to the conference to learn more. One thing he takes away is that there is more to the story than what appears on the surface. 

"The cues to abuse can also be the cues to a lot of people being abused, so to take the time to look into something that does look suspicious. This has showed me things that I didn't think of," McDade says. 

Many don't think of human trafficking at all. Virginia Strubbe is a Sioux Falls social worker. She says educating the public is key. 

"At my agency, I think what will be valuable for us to know are some of the indicators that Kevin talked about. What are things that we as citizens in the community can be looking for? What are things that I as a social worker can be looking for when we talk to the women who come to our agency who are facing unplanned pregnancy? What is their situation? What have they had to go through? Are there indicators that we might pick up and could possibly help that person?" Strubbe says. 

USD Professor of Social Work Elizabeth Talbot says the public needs to pay attention. 

"That it exists and they need to be aware that this is going on in their communities," says Talbot. 

The human trafficking issue is exploding in the media. The movie Taken tells the story of a teenage girl who is kidnapped for trafficking while traveling overseas. Many documentaries expose real-life stories of the industry, such as The Whistleblower and Redlight.  Awareness is being spread on social media sites, and according to Kimberly Kaveny at Be Free Ministries, the information is out there. 

"This issue has really exploded as far as media so there's films, there's reading material, there's books, the internet is full of information," says Kaveny.  

But despite increased awareness, Elizabeth Talbot says human trafficking is the second most profitable criminal activity in the world, and is estimated to beat out the drug trade for the number one spot in the next few years.

"It's going to be an uphill battle," says Talbot.  

But that doesn't stop South Dakota officials from investigating cases, prosecuting traffickers, offering healing and hope to victims, and educating the public. 

Visit Be Free Ministries for more information on human trafficking.