Gov. Greg Gianforte, second from left, and Attorney General Austin Knudsen, second from right, discuss human trafficking at a roundtable with law enforcement and local leaders in Missoula on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

MISSOULA — Gov. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen on Tuesday hosted a roundtable discussion about how to improve Montana’s handling of human trafficking cases, a topic the two officials said is critical following a year of investigations by the state Department of Justice.

The event took place at the State Crime Lab in Missoula and focused predominantly on how law enforcement can better identify and intervene in cases where people are being exploited for sex and labor. 

“Everyone likes to think that human trafficking and sex slavery don’t happen in Montana because that’s a big city problem,” Knudsen said during opening remarks. “And that’s just sadly not the case.”

Knudsen said the Division of Criminal Investigation within DOJ tracked 41 human trafficking cases in 2021, up from seven in 2015. The department has two dedicated Billings-based investigators to handle those types of cases, but Knudsen said more resources are needed to handle investigations across the state. 

Law enforcement officials, including local detectives and Montana Highway Patrol members, also discussed the need for better technology to help track predators who recruit and groom young people online, a tactic that can allow exploitation to progress without the awareness of parents and guardians. 

Attendees, including representatives of The LifeGuard Group and the Missoula County Human Trafficking Task Force, widely agreed about the necessity of increasing community awareness and public education about the signs of trafficking, as well as what intervention resources are available. 

Lowell Hochhalter, founder of the LifeGuard Group, said he’s seen promising use of the Montana Human Trafficking Hotline, which registered 87 contacts by text, phone and online chat in 2021. 

Hochhalter said the hotline, launched in 2020 with a $26,000 grant from The Gianforte Family Foundation, can be critically useful when the national human trafficking hotline is overburdened. He cited the local hotline as another tool that could be made more effective with reliable state funding.

While human trafficking is often linked with the elevated rates of missing Indigenous people, no representatives of tribal nations were present at the Tuesday roundtable. Knudsen later said that his agency is actively working with tribal members to address missing persons cases through the MMIP Task Force and a grant program that helps tribal nations develop systems to report and track people who go missing.

One person at the roundtable meeting, Shantell Gaynor with the Missoula County Justice Department, brought up several points about the need to address human trafficking from economic and public health angles as well as from the law enforcement perspective.

Gaynor, reached later by phone, said she does not take the governor and attorney general’s attention to the issue for granted. But she stressed the importance of seeking upstream solutions to help protect vulnerable individuals and communities from exploitation in the first place — including affordable housing, better wage opportunities and education.

Many Montanans might fall into trafficking because “that’s how they’re surviving,” Gaynor said.

“They’ve got housing and they’ve got food” from the profiteer, she said. A victim “might not love what’s happening, but their very important needs might be met.” The question policy officials should be asking, Gaynor continued, is “how do we create stable environments where people have the best shot at getting their needs met in healthy ways?” 

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.