Montana a strategic point in fight against trafficking

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DeliverFund Director of Special Programs Jeanne Parker, former detective commander for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, speaks at Casey’s in Whitefish on the topic of human trafficking on Wednesday. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Montana and Texas are becoming key strategic points in the fight against human trafficking, according to counter-trafficking experts.

On Wednesday night a full house packed the second floor of Casey’s in Whitefish to ask questions and get answers from Nic McKinley and Jeremy Mahugh, the founder and co-founder of the counter-trafficking organization DeliverFund and two of its local assets; Director of Special Programs Jeanne Parker, formerly detective commander for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, and Senior Targeting Analyst Shane Erickson, a former senior detective for the Whitefish Police Department.

DeliverFund operates nationwide, but the response the organization gets in other states can’t compare. McKinley brought this point sharply into focus in his remarks saying, “When we go to other states to talk about human trafficking the response is often, ‘That’s awful, someone should do something about that.’ In Montana and Texas the culture is different and so the response is ‘That’s awful, what can we do about that.’”

Because of this strong cultural push toward action, Texas and Montana have become focal points for DeliverFund and the mission to stop and block human traffickers.

McKinley, who served in U.S. Special Operations as an Air Force Pararescueman for 11 years before being recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, said their goal is to create what the military refers to as a “phase line” in Montana and Texas. According to the Department of Defense, a phase line is “a line utilized for control and coordination of military operations.” McKinley describes this as a line that human traffickers will not be able to cross without being detected and subsequently caught. He wants to see the reputation of these states grow to where traffickers are afraid to enter because they know they are more likely to get caught.

“The same tool that allowed traffickers to obtain this level of proficiency is their Achilles’ heal,” said McKinley. “It’s the internet.”

“We are going to make human trafficking impossible in America. Traffickers are going to have do something other than prey on our kids,” McKinley added.

Many people mistakenly associate human trafficking as more of an international problem, but McKinley opened the night by challenging that belief and making attendees aware that the biggest illicit sex market in the world is the United States.

The numbers are staggering, and Montana is not immune. Parker relayed statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that show that in 2018 there were 440 cyber tip-line reports of sexual exploitation of children in Montana. In 2019 that number is already at 370, and of that number 26% are directly tied to the Flathead Valley.

“Not all missing children are trafficked, but all missing kids are a population more susceptible to traffickers,” said McKinley.

Questions and concerns came from around the room. Topics included what DeliverFund does for victims of trafficking, what parents and families can do, and how people can help.

Erickson brought some of the new realities home to parents in the crowd.

“I am absolutely going to be a helicopter dad,” Erickson stressed.

He relayed the story of a young boy they call “Noah,” who was contacted by a trafficker through a gaming console like Xbox. One night Noah went two blocks from his home to meet the person he thought was a friend and was kidnapped.

DelieverFund was able to get involved and Noah was rescued within 24 hours, but Erickson’s point was that this can happen fast and often without parents even knowing their kids are talking to anyone outside the home.

DelieverFund got its start in April 2015. In the years since it began more than 300 traffickers have been arrested or prosecuted, and more than 1,000 victims have been rescued.

“The credit for this does not go to DeliverFund,” McKinley noted. “The credit goes to the law enforcement officers who are kicking down doors and taking the risks to save lives. We can’t take credit for their goal, but we can certainly take credit for the assist.”

Added Parker: “DelieverFund is a nonprofit funded by private donations to support law enforcement officers in arresting persons engaged in trafficking. The No.1 thing people can do to help is donate.”

Parker also warned parents that technology and social media have outpaced a parent’s ability to monitor all the technology their kids are engaged with. She said parents have to be having open and honest conversations with their children about strangers and the dangers online. “We lock our front doors at night, but we allow our children to have their cellphones alone in their rooms and predators are using that as a way to come into the places where our children are supposed to be safe.”

The next event for DeliverFund is a seven-day counter-human trafficking intelligence operators course in Dallas, Texas, for 20 law enforcement officers from around the country. This training is offered to them free of charge.

Brenda Ahearn may be reached at 758-4435 or bahearn@dailyinterlake.com.

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