National Child Sex Trafficking Activist Believes Montana Will Strengthen Laws

By Beacon Staff

Linda Smith, the founder of Shared Hope International and a former congresswoman, wasn’t surprised when Montana received an “F” grade in her organization’s report card on states’ minor sex trafficking laws.

Her lack of surprise wasn’t a statement on Montana specifically. Rather, Smith understood that a lot of states would receive poor grades since minor sex trafficking has simply been off the radar for many Americans, from law officials to the general public. And in fact, 26 states received “F” grades.

The mission of Smith’s Shared Hope International is to raise awareness about the widespread concern of sex trafficking; to illustrate for people that trafficking is an American concern – from urban coastal cities to small rural towns in flyover country.

But the mission is also to take awareness one step further and translate it into laws that have teeth. After discussions with the attorney general, as well as other attorneys and officials around the state, Smith believes Montana is ready to make sure the next time grades come around it won’t have to worry about an “F.”

Smith, who served as a U.S. representative from Washington for two terms from 1995-1999, said she wouldn’t be surprised to see the next state Legislature bring forth anti-trafficking legislation.

“I’m focusing on Montana – I think you can do it here,” Smith said in an interview last week. “I think there’s the will to do it. You’re not in denial here.”

Smith, who says “child sex trafficking is happening at alarming rates” in the U.S., was in Kalispell last week for a Shared Hope International community training workshop called “Do You Know Lacy?” held April 26 at Flathead Valley Community College to teach Montanans how to detect the indicators of and respond to minor sex trafficking.

The event was hosted by Shared Hope International in partnership with Soroptimist International of Kalispell, Flathead Valley Community College, Phi Theta Kappa and Rotary International.

Event organizers said around 200 people signed up for the training, including law enforcement, social service and health providers, community and youth advocates, parents and others from around the state.

Trainers included Sgt. Mike Geiger of the Portland Police Department and Sgt. John Chapman of the Vancouver Police Department in Washington. Other trainers with extensive experience in child sex trafficking made the trip to Kalispell as well.

“Domestic minor sex trafficking exists in our small communities, and it’s one of the fastest-growing criminal activities,” Diane Yarus of Soroptimist International of Kalispell said. “We all have an obligation to ensure our children’s safety.”

“In order to address this crime effectively,” she added, “we first need to have a deeper understanding of the crime, and we feel that the comprehensive approach to this training accomplishes that and sets us on the course to take additional action.”

According to a press release about the training session, it is estimated that at least 100,000 children are exploited in the U.S. commercial sex industry each year. The average age of the children is 13.

In light of disheartening statistics like those, Shared Hope International partnered with the American Center for Law and Justice to conduct a comprehensive analysis of every state’s existing trafficking laws, produced a report card for each state and offered recommendations for strengthening the anti-trafficking laws there. The report was released late last year.

Smith has spoken with attorney generals, governors and other officials across the country about strengthening anti-trafficking laws. Since the report came out, she said 200 trafficking-related bills in 37 states have been drafted.

“Thirty-seven states taking decisive action is amazing,” she said. “We’re not having anyone saying the methodology is off.”

Montana hasn’t had a legislative session since the report was released but when the next one convenes in 2013, Smith expects to see trafficking addressed. Whether it’s through the Internet or other avenues, child sex trafficking is occurring in Montana, Smith said, and she’s encouraged by state officials who seem eager to address the problem.

Last week’s training session, she said, was an important step.

“Now that more people know about this,” she said, “we can get out in front of it.”

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