MISSOULA — It generates $150 billion worldwide and it's a problem right here in Montana — human trafficking.
The goal of a Tuesday roundtable in Missoula — which came in light of sobering statistics on human trafficking in the state — was how to end it.
Those numbers include a 485% increase in cases from 2015 to 2021. To break it down, in 2015, the Montana Department of Justice tracked seven cases but last year that number was 68. The statistics -- and what we need to do about them – were the focal point of the event.
Gov. Greg Ginaforte signed a proclamation naming January as Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month. He and Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen hosted the discussion at the State Crime Lab in Missoula where they talked about how to move forward on the issue.
“Well, it's really important," said Gov. Gianforte. "We've seen an increase in human trafficking crimes in the state. And part of the solution is to increase awareness.”
“So this is nothing new to Montana," Missoula Police Department Detective Guy Baker told MTN News. "I think the first case I work with 2010 and for the last decade, probably worked 60 to 70 cases both state and federal.”
Baker is at the forefront of shutting down human trafficking in the state, providing training to law enforcement across Montana. He's seen human trafficking first hand and told state officials what they can do moving forward to bring more attention to the issue.
“Female victims will be in a female restroom separated briefly from the exploiter," said Baker in the discussion. "So I think a renewed effort to put these fliers out to bring awareness to victims with the new member would be advantageous.”
The Montana Human Trafficking Hotline has received a total of 93 calls, texts or chat messages since it’s launch in 2020 with 87 total contacts in 2021. Nineteen of those came from Missoula County, 15 from Gallatin County, five from Yellowstone County, four from Lewis & Clark County, and two from Flathead County.
“It's mind-boggling, and they're legitimate calls we're getting,” Lowell Hochhalter with The Lifeguard Group said during the discussion.
The hotline has been mostly spread by word of mouth. The next step is to get the number out in popular places where trafficking takes place such as rest stops.
“A truck driver out at the Wye, just west of town — that as he's parked at one of our truck stops — called and says there's two 13-year-olds knocking on his truck,” said Hochhalter.
“Step one is we have got to increase awareness so people are just more cognizant of the dangers," Gov. Gianforte told MTN News. "And then secondly, we need to make sure we have the resources to be aggressive in our law enforcement. So this is a hostile environment for perpetrators of these tragic crimes.”
“You know, next steps for the Department of Justice, we're going to keep pushing out this training and to me, I think the first step has to be making sure all of our law enforcement in Montana, all of our prosecutors in Montana have a really robust grasp on what human trafficking is and what it looks like," Knudsen told MTN News. "And that we understand that we're not going to tolerate it here.”
“For a fifth-grader to write the question 'will it get better?' We better have an answer for that," said Hochhalter. "And the answer better be 'yes'.”
If you see or know someone who needs help you can call the Montana hotline at 1- 833-406-STOP.