BILLINGS - Sex trafficking and exploitation — especially that of minors, are some of the worst crimes law enforcement say they encounter — and it's a problem pervasive in Montana communities large and small.
“We know for a fact that the appetite for commercial sex with juveniles most certainly exists in Montana and certainly in Billings," says Officer Toby Baukema with the Montana Division of Criminal Investigations Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force.
On Aug.15, the FBI shared findings of Operation Cross Country XII, a nationwide collaborative effort between the FBI and state and local law enforcement agencies that took place in the first two weeks of August.
Operation Cross Country identified nearly 300 victims of sex trafficking and exploitation nationwide: 84 minor victims of child sex trafficking, 37 actively missing children, and 141 adult victims of human trafficking. Agents arrested 85 suspects involved in child exploitation and trafficking.
Baukema says four adult women were identified as victims of human trafficking in Billings. “Trafficking can exist anywhere that there is a power disparity between a victim and a trafficker and there’s a commodity to exploit."
The women range in age from their mid-20s to mid-30s, two of whom are white and two are women of color, Baukema says.
No arrests were made in the Billings portion of the operation.
“I think we’re used to seeing in the '70s and '80s cop shows with vice squads or on episodes on 'Cops' where they’re busting prostitutes we do not engage in those kinds of operations. No citations were issued for prostitution whether soliciting or providing for prostitution services during Operation Cross Country, that’s not something we foresee doing in the future," Baukema said.
"The exception being if we ever have someone show up intending to engage in commercial sex with a juvenile, that’s always a felony."
Baukema says when agents identify involved in sex trafficking, they approach them with dignity and check in to see how they are doing, if the activity is something they're willfully engaging in, and if there is interest to leave that line of work and access resources that can help.
Sometimes those involved with sex work decline the offers and say they are good with it all, Baukema says. Other times people doing sex work have emotional responses and take up the agents' offers of help.
Baukema says the tips and investigations keep pouring into his office, showing there's a lot of work to be done in Montana.
"We are seeing a lot of attitudes changing from community leaders, law enforcement leaders who used to look at the problem and said ‘we have prostitution, it hasn’t been a problem thus far’, to where we’re asking them to look a little deeper and try to determine whether these people are willingly involved in sex work, albeit illegal, or are they being victimized and exploited and subjected to a horrific way of life providing commercial, sex for the enrichment of somebody else and that’s what we’re trying to educate not just community members but also law enforcement about," Baukema said.
1-833-406-STOP (7867) is a statewide non-emergency line to call or text if you believe you witness human trafficking. If it's an emergency, call 911. You can also chat with a live advocate at 406stop.com.