Teachers, parents and concerned community members filed into the Flathead High School Auditorium Monday evening to learn about Human Trafficking. What they saw and heard was at times graphic and disturbing — and hit too close to home. But law enforcement officers and local activists hoped the event would spread awareness and spur a grassroot effort to combat human trafficking in the Flathead Valley.
Human Trafficking victims in Montana have been lured and coerced by a promise of a better life — a modeling or dancing career, a place to live, a romantic relationship. But instead they became entangled in the second-leading criminal industry in the world.
An estimated 50 percent of trafficking victims are minors, and the majority of them are female.
“Keep in mind, this crime would not occur if there was not a demand for it. The fact that it’s a crime in the Flathead Valley says there is a demand right here,” Missoula Detective and FBI Violent Crime Task Force member Guy Baker told the audience.
The night before the event, Baker searched Internet sites known to advertise “escorts.” The detective said he’s noticed a drop in the amount of advertisements on Backpage.com, the most popular site facilitating prostitution and sex trafficking.
This is most likely due to a proactive effort by Flathead Valley law enforcement agencies, he said. Unfortunately, it looks like other websites, which include graphic photos of prostitutes and sex trafficking victims, are seeing an increase in activity in the area.
The detective found almost a dozen “escort” advertisements in the Kalispell area at about 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday night.
Detective Jeanne Parker from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office specializes in human trafficking cases through her work with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
“The predators are real. They are here looking for our children.” she said.
The detective has taken on the online identities of a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old.
“I have talked to those predators, and I can tell you from experience that they are here for our children.”
Child sex traffickers often lure victims through online relationships using psychological tactics.
“Traffickers want loyalty and trust. They don’t want the victims to report them,” Parker said.
The detective encouraged parents and teachers to come together as a community to address internet exploitation.
“They are extorting and engaging (minors) through social media platforms to engage them in sex trafficking,” Parker said.
Young people who have been abused, neglected, and/or have identity issues are especially vulnerable to falling prey to traffickers.
“If you are not meeting your child’s needs, these guys will. They are very good at what they do,” Parker said. “They create relationships to establish trust, and then they exploit the child so they feel powerless and trapped,” Parker said.
Grace Manchala, a community activist who spearheaded the Monday event, said when she was a young girl, she didn’t tell her parents about the abuse she was enduring because she felt ashamed talking about something that was so taboo. Later in life, she fell victim to a man she thought loved her, but ended up being a human trafficker.
“I was so numb in my heart,” Manchala said. “I was trying to look for an identity, and this man gave me an identity.”
Manchala was able to overcome the cycle of abuse, and now she is driven to make an impact in her community.
She and law enforcement officers asked community members not to turn a blind eye to the issue, but to be willing to keep their eye out for local children.
During the event, a video from a recovering victim of sex trafficking told her story. This young woman reportedly fell through the cracks because she was seen as a “troubled child.”
“She slipped right through the hands of so many people who could have taken her out of that situation,” Manchala said.
Parents and teachers were urged to have conversations with children to make sure they were in a safe place, to share the dangers of exploitation, and to be open to having tough conversations with teens about internet safety. Students at Flathead and Glacier high schools have joined in the effort to combat exploitation by creating a public service announcement for their peers about the dangers of “sexting.” This is an important step in changing the culture regarding young people and the way they use technology, detective Parker said.
Earlier in the day on Monday, officers from around the valley took part in a specialized law enforcement training. They heard from Missoula detective Baker as well as Flathead County Sheriff’s Office Detective Alan Brooks about how to recognize, investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases.
Detective Brooks has attended multiple out-of-state and regional trainings that informed him how to deal with trafficking cases back home.
During a training in New Mexico, Brooks worked with officers who had extensive knowledge dealing with human trafficking cases. During that time, he looked into real-time investigations, and one of these cases involved two females who were trafficked from Montana.
“Is this going on here? Unfortunately, yes,” Brooks said. “We wouldn’t do ourselves justice as a community to deny it.”
The detective told Flathead Valley residents that a combination of a community awareness, law enforcement tools and victim support can make a difference in combating human trafficking locally.
“To preserve the sanctity of this community I challenge each one of us to be informed and be active,” he said.
Reporter Breeana Laughlin can be reached at 758-4441 or email@example.com.