Human trafficking reports up 871% since 2015; underreporting still an issue

2021 saw 68 reported cases of human trafficking

By: - January 18, 2022 8:45 am

The Scott Hart Building where the Department of Justice is located in Montana (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

Cigarettes, chew and the occasional suicide note were the standard surrenderings from students after former youth pastor Lowell Hochhalter would give presentations at school assemblies across Montana and the country. But as time went on, he said the offerings became more grim, like stories aligning with signs of human trafficking.

“That was world rocking to me. I didn’t even think it could be possible,” Hochhalter said. 

Now, Hochhalter runs the LifeGuard Group in Missoula — a dedicated nonprofit explicitly focused on combating human trafficking and providing resources to victims. Part of the group’s efforts includes giving human trafficking presentations at schools across the state.

There hasn’t been an assembly we have done where an individual hasn’t come up and said they know someone being trafficked or are being trafficked themselves,” he said. “And they don’t use the word trafficked. That’s difficult for them. But they will say that sounds like my life, or that sounds like my friend’s life.”

State data bear out Hochhalter’s experiences.

The Montana Department of Justice investigated 68 human trafficking cases in 2021, an increase of 871% from the seven cases reported in 2015. But the actual number of cases investigated in Montana last year is likely higher because the DOJ data does not account for some local and federal cases, said Missoula Police Department Detective Guy Baker.

And human trafficking has been on the rise across the country. In 2020, 11,193 situations of human trafficking were identified through the United States National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Last December, the Justice Department announced the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, aiming to streamline coordination among anti-trafficking partners in an attempt to better investigate cases.

“Human trafficking is an insidious crime that impacts some of the most vulnerable people in our country and around the world,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in a press release announcing the plan.

Human trafficking is generally understood within the United States to mean:

“The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act (sex trafficking), in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; and the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

While the amount of trafficking in Montana is on the rise, experts in the field say the sharp increase in reported instances also correlates with awareness efforts, and in the past, there was most likely more trafficking going unnoticed.

It is my strong opinion that [the sharp increase] is about more awareness and an increase in training among law enforcement,” said Shantelle Gaynor in a phone interview on Wednesday.When people first started getting trained in Montana, they realized they were serving trafficking victims in the past and didn’t realize it.”

Gaynor is the director of Missoula County’s Community Justice Department and was part of a roundtable discussion about human trafficking on Tuesday with Gov. Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, and other law enforcement agencies and community partners.

People who spoke at the event and with the Daily Montanan universally emphasized the need for increased public awareness and a collaborative approach to fighting human trafficking.

“Through an all-of-state effort among law enforcement, nonprofit organizations, schools, private businesses, and each and every one of us, we can reverse recent trends and protect the vulnerable and our communities from these despicable crimes,” Gianforte said in a press release following the roundtable.

Gaynor agreed that a holistic approach is necessary when addressing human trafficking and stressed the necessity of both upstream and downstream solutions to address trafficking in the state.

“Human trafficking is a complex problem, and it requires complex solutions at all stages,” she said.

One of those stages is educating young people about human trafficking at a young age to prevent exploitation before it happens.

“School-based prevention can be really effective because it helps build networks among youth,” she said. “And prevention isn’t just saying trafficking exists; it’s looking at media and internet literacy and proactive communication skills. The same way we can teach kids drivers education, we can teach internet safety.”

At the same time, advocates said there needs to be more public resources and services tailored to suit the needs of a trafficking victim.

In the U.S. of the roughly 1,000 shelter beds for trafficking victims, only around 150 are available to children. In Montana, there is only one emergency shelter for trafficking victims, located in Billings, but Hochhalter said the LifeGuard Group has plans to open a Missoula shelter this spring. 

The LifeGuard Group also launched a Montana-specific trafficking hotline — 1-833-406-STOP — through a grant from the Gianforte Family Foundation in 2020. While a national hotline exists, Hochhalter said it’s often too busy to provide adequate response times for victims. In 2021, the Montana hotline received 86 calls, he said.

Gaynor said trafficking-based resources are critical for helping trafficking victims who often struggle to escape exploitive situations because their profiteer is also their provider.

Someone who is exploiting [a victim] is also meeting their basic needs like providing housing and food, so when people leave if they don’t have their basic needs met, it’s really hard to stay out of an exploitative situation,” she said.

According to the LifeGuard Group, 80 percent of victims end up back in their trafficker’s hands because of the lack of available resources, with 75 percent of trafficking survivors noting that housing was the greatest area of need when trying to get out of an exploitive situation. Additionally, according to the group, a victim will return to a dangerous situation an average of seven times before definitively leaving.

“It’s so difficult for victims to walk away because their basic needs are being met,” said Lyndale Mattis, who manages the Pathways Program at the Missoula YWCA.

Mattis said the program served 35 trafficking victims in 2021 and said many of the victims came from situations that people would not typically think of as human trafficking.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of intimate partner relationships that have a dynamic of human trafficking,” she said. “In intimate partnerships, when there is violence or power and control, there can be human trafficking like when a partner is talked into trading sex for drugs or trading sex for a car payment.”

Like Gaynor, Mattis also said the dramatic increase in reported cases between 2021 and 2015 is likely due to more awareness and said there was likely a lot more trafficking happening in 2015 beyond the seven cases investigated by the state.

Underreporting of incidents has been a historical issue with human trafficking. A lot of our human trafficking survivors absolutely refuse to speak with law enforcement, so I know those cases are not being reported,” she said.

The Montana Department of Justice provides the following potential indicators of human trafficking activity:

  • Being hesitant to engage in conversation. Eyes may be downcast, and victims may avoid eye contact.
  • A poor physical state – tired, malnourished, or show signs of physical abuse or torture.
  • Trouble responding to what their name is or where they are. Victims’ whereabouts and names change frequently.
  • Wearing clothes that do not fit the climate or situation they are in.
  • Lack of control over money and personal possessions. May also carry very few possessions in a plastic bag.
  • Accompanied by a dominating person or someone they seem fearful of. The controlling person may be someone who does not seem to fit, such as a much older individual or an individual with behavior seemingly inappropriate with the suspected victim.
  • A young girl or boy hanging around outside a convenience store, truck stop, casino, or other location. The individual may be approaching different vehicles or people they do not seem to know.

And human trafficking has had a disproportionate impact on tribal communities that see higher levels of missing people, said Shayla Beaumont, director of Project Beacon, which is part of the All Nations Health Center. The program provides support and services to Indigenous survivors of human trafficking.

“There is a huge demand for Indigenous girls in human trafficking, predators who purchase these girls … Indigenous women have been fetishized,” Beaumont said.

In 2021, Beaumont said she received more than 200 referrals from across the state about Indigenous trafficking victims, and said providing cultural support is a key component for Indigenous victims of trafficking. “A lot of the human trafficking techniques are manipulative, and providing that cultural support can help them find their identity,” she said.

At the roundtable, Knudsen said the state is actively working with tribes to address the issue through the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force and the Looping in Native Communities grant, which awarded $25,000 to the Blackfeet Community College in March of 2020 to develop an online reporting portal to report missing Indigenous people.

Roundtable participants also spoke about the need for increased law enforcement resources, like more dedicated trafficking investigators at the DOJ and better technology to monitor traffickers who target young people online.

“Human trafficking and sexual slavery are happening in Montana, and we can’t ignore it. That’s why fighting human trafficking is one of my top priorities as Attorney General,” Attorney General Knudsen said in a press release following the roundtable discussion.

Two years ago, the legislature approved funding for the hiring of two agents in Billings dedicated to investigating human trafficking cases, but Division of Criminal Investigation Administrator Bryan Lockerby said it is insufficient. “We could have 10 more, and we’d still be just as busy as we are today,” he said.

Baker, who is also part of the FBI’s SafeStreets task force in Missoula, which investigates violent crimes including human trafficking, said one of the biggest challenges he faces when investigating human trafficking cases is gaining the trust of the victim.

To do that, he said, there needs to be a change in mentality and perception within law enforcement, the criminal justice system and society.

“I think we are in the infant stages of changing that perception now with sex trafficking because there are still a lot of people out there that have the mentality that they are just prostitutes … but that could not be further from the truth,” he said.

There also needs to be more protection for victims of trafficking to come forward without fear of being charged for other crimes like drug use, Baker said. A positive move in that direction came with House Bill 520, Baker said. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, gives sex workers who report sexual assault immunity against prostitution charges.

Baker also said many of the victims he deals with often don’t see themselves that way, which leads to more unreported cases.

The majority of victims are being exploited by someone they think loves them,” he said. “I like to say the chains of modern-day slavery are not on the ankles and wrists but are on the mind, because [human trafficking] exploiters are master manipulators.”

If you suspect human trafficking, call 911 in an emergency. In non-emergency situations call 1-833-406-STOP (1-833-406-7867) or reach an advocate via If you see suspected traffickers, do not intervene, and remain at a safe distance. Take pictures of the trafficker, victim, and vehicle license plate if possible.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.