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Local Leaders Work to Promote Human Trafficking Awareness

The Flathead Alliance to Stop Trafficking provides training for organizations and businesses while connecting victims to resources in the region

By Maggie Dresser
Members of the Flathead Alliance to Stop Trafficking pictured outside the Flathead County Justice Center on Jan. 16, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Several years ago, after Diane Yarus attended a presentation focused on human trafficking prevention in Montana at the attorney general’s office in Billings, she and Jeanne Parker, who was with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office at the time, set out to launch a task force to provide more victim resources and facilitate awareness training in the region.

The task force was made up of sheriff’s office victim advocates, healthcare professionals and nonprofit leaders, focusing on the law enforcement side of human trafficking. 

But Yarus and the board recently shifted the group to provide a softer representation and create a less intimidating resource. In the last few years, the team rebranded the task force, which is now called the Flathead Alliance to Stop Trafficking (FAST).

“We rebranded because the task force had a legal and law enforcement feel,” Yarus said. “Our group is about victim advocacy, and we want them to reach out for support … FAST was a softer representation.”

Yarus, the FAST chair and president of Soroptimist International of Whitefish, said the group primarily offers resources for trafficking victims and provides training for hotels and other workplaces that might encounter trafficking scenarios. 

The State Department estimates that 24.5 million people worldwide are victims of trafficking and, between December 2007 and December 2020, the National Human Trafficking Hotline tracked nearly 74,000 trafficking reports. The Montana Department of Justice saw seven human trafficking cases in 2015. That increased to 68 in 2021, according to state data. 

FAST works to connect trafficking victims to resources like the Abbie Shelter, the Salvation Army and healthcare facilities, but Yarus says this does not come without challenges. 

“What we are finding is that lack of resources,” Yarus said. “Where can we put somebody that might be safe?”

Yarus says many victims don’t realize they are being manipulated and abused, and substance abuse is also often involved in trafficking scenarios – deterring victims from reporting their abuser or seeking help. 

At the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, child victim advocate Sean Sullivan says there are many different definitions of human trafficking. While many people think of kidnapping scenarios resembling the movie “Taken,” he said victimization comes in a variety of forms, like not having control of personal images and sexting. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as involving the “use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”

Several websites have been used as avenues for human trafficking, Sullivan said, and abusers often meet victims online and use substances to coerce victims.  

“The reality is a lot of times trafficking happens as a result of drugs, socioeconomics and they are often runaway kids that haven’t been reported,” Sullivan said. “That’s the part people don’t want to hear.”

Sullivan says it’s important to educate the public about reading human trafficking signs so they can report suspicious activity.

“I think the most important thing is the people in the community who actually witness these things,” Sullivan said. “Unless they are reported, they will never be investigated. Most of the traffickers are living a financially healthy lifestyle and they don’t want to give up their property. It’s a matter of the community being aware of it.”

Yarus and other FAST members work around northwest Montana to provide workshops for nonprofits and other organizations, and they are drafting legislation that would require human trafficking training for workplaces like hotels where the crimes often take place. 

FAST members also work with victims who might have been prosecuted for other crimes and provide “dignity bags” for people getting released from jail. Items in the bags include personal care items, socks, clothing and pamphlets of resources like the food bank and the library.

To reach the Montana Human Trafficking Hotline, call 833-406-7867. 

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