According to the Human Trafficking Institute, South Dakota ranks 11th in human trafficking nationwide, with most cases related to sex trafficking. The state also ranks eighth for the number of new cases.
The group Call to Freedom has been working in South Dakota since 2016 to reduce those numbers. Executive Director Becky Rasmussen says traffickers often seek out victims who appear to be homeless or runaways, but Native American reservations are also targets.
“Obviously when you have three of the poorest counties located in the United States here in South Dakota, with some of our reservations,” says Rasmussen, “there’s a lot of poverty and ability to victimize individuals. ”
Trafficking is defined as the use of force, fear or coercion to exploit for sex or labor.
Rasmussen says South Dakota has many communities with major intersecting highways, which makes them more vulnerable to this type of activity. She adds events that draw large crowds of men, such as the Sturgis bike rally and pheasant-hunting, also attract traffickers.
The U.S. Attorney’s office for South Dakota has won 80 federal trafficking prosecutions in the state.
Rasmussen says the average age a teen enters the sex trade in the U.S. is 12 to 14, and many victims are runaway girls who were sexually abused as children.
“A lot of times, individuals who have been groomed by family members and sold by family members don’t understand,” says Rasmussen, “because of the dynamic, that they’re an actual victim of trafficking, because they were introduced to it by the person that they trust.”
Since 2011, Shared Hope International, a group fighting the sex trafficking of minors has issued an annual rating of how well states are addressing the human trafficking issue. South Dakota and Maine are the only two states that received ‘D’ grades in 2019, while the nation as a whole received a ‘B.’