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As human trafficking rises in Montana, here’s what to look for – and how to help

Human Trafficking Awareness Month background with ribbon and hand sign. January is trafficking awareness month, backdrop design
Muhammad Farhad/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Human Trafficking Awareness Month background with ribbon and hand sign. January is trafficking awareness month, backdrop design

January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. While it is easy to think of human trafficking as something that only happens in big cities, or other countries, it is a crime that can happen anywhere, and to anyone.

Recently, a Nevada man was convicted and sentenced for transporting a minor to engage in prostitution. It happened at the Quality Inn in Billings.

The state Department of Justice reports human trafficking cases in Montana rose roughly 300% from 2021 to 2022.

This comes as no surprise to Penny Ronning, co-founder and co-chair of the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force. She made the issue a major part of her platform in her run for Congress last year. Yellowstone Public Radio’s Orlinda Worthington spoke with Ronning about the prevalence of human trafficking in Montana.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Orlinda Worthington:  I think most of us do think of sex… Oftentimes people think of prostitution and human trafficking as the same thing.  They are not, correct?

Penny Ronning: Prostitution actually involves consent. However, human trafficking, there is no consent. Elements that have to be proven within the crime of human trafficking are force fraud or coercion, and that's if the victim is an adult. If the victim is a minor, those elements do not have to be proven because a minor can never give consent, ever. That’s one of the things that's incredibly important for everyone to understand is that with human trafficking, whether it's sex trafficking or labor trafficking, there's never consent.

So human trafficking can include being forced to work without being paid.

Anytime you have an industry that the criminal enterprises can come in and exploit they're going to, so our hospitality industry, our nail salon industry, agriculture, construction, these are all areas in which we're seeing human trafficking in the labor portion of it. That’s where we’re seeing human trafficking in Montana.

Oftentimes what we see there also is called a debt bond where maybe some type of license has been paid for, or transportation has been paid for, or boarding housing is being paid for. Oftentimes we’ll see people from other countries who are promised a job and promised a way to be able to send money back to their families. And then they’ll get here and end up in that debt bondage cycle.

And sometimes it’s Montanans, right?

Penny Ronning is the co-founder and co-chair of the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force.
Rebecca Douglas
Penny Ronning is the co-founder and co-chair of the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force.

When we talk about poverty and we talk about other vulnerabilities to human trafficking, and we take a look around our state and we see that those vulnerabilities are here in our state it's not hard to imagine that human trafficking is actually happening here.

One of the things I share in a lot of different conversations is you can’t see what you’re not willing to look for. Human trafficking is happening all around us. Traffickers know that we’re not paying attention to what happens around us when we go to the grocery store or go to, you know, a big box store, or go to the coffee shop.

So what can we look for, penny?

Some of the signs that you're going to want to look for is if you see an older man with a younger female, and the relationship doesn't look right. Something about that relationship makes you take a second glance, makes you think inside that doesn't look like a normal father-daughter relationship. That doesn't look like a normal husband, wife, relationship, boyfriend, girlfriend relationship. Something's wrong. And you have this instinct that just sets off inside of you. Look again.

Is a female, or even a male, males are victims of human trafficking as well, is the person who is potentially a victim, are they not dressed appropriately for the elements? Is the victim not making eye contact with people? Does there appear to be a control situation happening?

And something I would never have thought about, tattoos. Now, to be clear, the majority of those with tattoos are not involved in human trafficking. But a tattoo can be a sign.

Angel Baby, crowns, barcodes, property of. So they like to mark their property and oftentimes they do that in tattooing.

If someone sees something that you’ve just described or suspects a human trafficking situation, what should we do?

One of the things we emphasize is to never, ever attempt to disrupt a suspected human trafficking situation. The most important thing to do is take a good visual. If you can take a picture without being seen and then retreat and go call 911. And report that you think that you are seeing suspected human trafficking.

You mentioned to me one time that everyone asks, what can I do to help, and your answer surprised me a little bit.

So one of the first things that people can do is change their language. I often hear people refer to victims as sex workers. No, they're not. They're victim workers. It may seem strange that that's something they can do to actually fight human trafficking and help reduce this crime. But what it does is it helps bring society’s awareness that these are victims. They’re not there because they want to be. So it’s important that we change the language because that language is gonna help people change their thoughts toward what this crime actually is.

If you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect someone is, call the FBI at 406-254-8117.

The 24-hour Victim Services Montana Anti-Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 833-406-STOP o If there is immediate danger, call 911.

Orlinda Worthington hosts “Morning Edition” weekdays on YPR. She brings 20 years of experience as Montana television news anchor, producer, and reporter.