Even here in the Mission Valley, right under our noses, kids and adults are being targeted by human traffickers, intent on kidnapping and forcing them into slavery for sex and labor.
Often it starts online, but it can happen anywhere there are people. Citizens knowing what to watch for can help stop it and help rescue those invisible victims among us.
Local law enforcement officers joined presenters Oct. 2 from around Montana at Polson High School to raise awareness of human trafficking, and how to prevent our own family members from falling into its maw. Montana had 1,847 missing person cases last year, including many runaways. At least 1 in 3 runaways are known to be approached by a trafficker within 48 hours, with promises of everything from food and shelter to love, drugs, and money.
But a person doesn’t have to be a runaway to be vulnerable online, at a gas station, even on an evening out on the town. The sale of humans is a $32 billion/year worldwide enterprise, second only to the drug trade.
“The more people who are aware of this, the better we can protect our kids,” said Grace Manchala.
The Polson presentation was one of the many Grace and her husband Raju, with their Flathead-based non-profit Grace for Ashes, help coordinate around the state. The couple have made it their full-time lives’ work to help Montana fight human trafficking and help those affected to find healing.
Working with the Attorney General’s office, law enforcement, and many organizations and businesses, they work to expand community training, law enforcement training and resources, and victim assistance resources throughout the state.
“Our best resource is teamwork,” said Sgt. George Simpson of the Polson Police Department. “Multiple agencies working together, and with our best resource, the community.”
Brian Frost, Training Officer with the Criminal Justice Information Network and the Montana Missing Person Clearinghouse, emphasized that there is no waiting period required for calling 911 if a person is worried about someone’s whereabouts or feels suspicious of some activity they see.
“Call 911 as soon as you are missing someone,” Frost said. “Don’t delay. Never feel guilty.”
The dispatcher will ask for any identifying information, everything from name, photos, and last contacts to tattoos and bumper stickers. He said it is extremely important for parents to know what social media accounts their kids have, and their passwords, because this is where many kids are deceived into meeting with traffickers.
Natale Adorne, a Domestic Violence program trainer for Montana Law Enforcement Academy, gave some harrowing statistics, including that Native Americans make up 30% of Montana’s missing persons, though they only make up 3-6% of the state’s population.
She explained “red flags” such as those listed at by the National Human Trafficking hotline, that can indicate someone is abused and/or held against their will. These can include abusive work environments, as well as poor mental or physical health, lack of control over their own finances or ID, and someone else speaking for them. “Don’t be afraid to ask someone, ‘Are you safe?’.”
“Fight to stay involved in the lives of your kids,” Manchala said.
As a victim of trafficking herself, she knows first hand the lifelong impacts of the trauma they suffer. Her story is coming out in a new book, “Finding Grace,” available online. Even after being rescued, she says, physical and mental issues can be daunting. She intends the book to help people work through the difficult process of coming back into their own lives after such an ordeal.
Local law enforcement is connected to a national network to help find missing persons.
“You never know,” said Lake County Sheriff Don Bell, “you might be the one report that helps zero in on something we’re already working on.”
He gave an example of a girl who was kidnapped in Nebraska and rescued in Montana because someone called in a car parked at his brother’s house when the brother wasn’t home.
Warning signs of potential human trafficking are available at dojmt.gov/agooffice/human-trafficking and humantraffickinghotline.org.