An advocate for victims of sexual trafficking in North Dakota said western North Dakota is rife with problems that will require financial and human resources to solve.
Windie Lazenko with 4herND, Williston, spoke at a North Dakota Family Alliance forum in Minot Tuesday.
"What I am seeing in Williston, North Dakota, is blatant," Lazenko said. "That's the hub of where human trafficking is going on."
Pimps don't just send their prostitutes to strip clubs but to solicit in places like Walmart, she said.
"Ninety percent of girls working in prostitution are under a pimp's control. They are not here by choice," Lazenko said, noting that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 years old.
In the past eight months, 4herND has assisted 14 victims, of whom many were working in Minot, Lazenko said. She worked with one victim who testified before a grand jury about being locked in a dog kennel for two days for failing to raise the money quota set by her pimp.
Traffickers often lure boys and girls online and then take them to other parts of the country, where it is more difficult for them to flee or seek help, Lazenko said. Now in North Dakota with their out-of-state victims, traffickers are looking around for new victims to take elsewhere, she said. 4herND gets little lash back from the industry because pimps will easily let one rescued victim go, knowing there are plenty of young replacements out there, she said.
Lazenko is a California native who was sucked into trafficking at age 13. She was in the prostitution and adult entertainment industry until age 32, when she turned her life over to Christ. Six years ago, she became involved in advocacy for other victims, working in Montana and then Miami before hearing about human trafficking in North Dakota's oil patch.
Lazenko said she came to North Dakota expecting to identify the problems so others could step in to help. Instead, she has remained.
"I have been here for 10 months now because I was so overwhelmed and because of the amount of human trafficking that's going in here," she said. "There was no person in the entire state of North Dakota who was working in human trafficking and doing training and doing education, not even among the churches. This is not OK for the amount of human trafficking going on, that there should be such a severe lack of resources."
Lazenko's goal is to establish a six-bed safe house, possibly in Stanley, which is between Williston and Minot. Ultimately, rescued victims are relocated to longer term shelters in other states.
Lazenko said 4herND welcomes volunteers to get involved in a variety of ways. People can contact 4herND at 406-844-0377 or visit (www.4herND.org).
However, Lazenko said, most people who sign up for advocacy training don't finish or don't last because the work involves more than they are prepared to give.
"These girls are hard out of hurt. They are so in need of love and patience and understanding," Lazenko said. "It's rigorous work and you can't give up when it's hard and it's tiring."
4herND has a two-person staff and a solid core of five volunteers. The group works with the FBI but finds that local law enforcement agencies are untrained and too overwhelmed with their increasing workloads to give adequate attention to trafficking. Lazenko said a "john school" is being formed that would offer mandatory education about trafficking to people arrested for purchasing sex.
She added that there are other groups forming in the state that work alongside 4herND. One is Dakota Pearls, a group that visits strip clubs twice a month in Williston to present gift packages to strippers and develop relationships that could open the door for them should they want to leave. Supporters in Minot assemble gift packages that are delivered to Williston once a month.
On a wider basis, truckers have an organization devoted to combating trafficking. The Polaris Project also has an online site with information to help people to reach out to victims. Shared Hope International and FREE International have school curriculums to educate youth.
People who witness suspicious activity can report anonymously to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
"There's other organizations that are helping me and mentoring me. I am really just mirroring what's been successful across the United States so far," Lazenko said.
4herND is seeking grants and other donations for a future safe house and to support other program costs, such as replacing a victim's personal belongings or providing needed health care. To avoid a rescued victim falling back into trafficking, the organization discourages victims from going back to retrieve personal belongings.
Next to money, Lazenko noted, "The number one need is prayer. It's a horrible, spiritual wickedness that's going on in the Bakken region."