Men and women gathered at Montana State University Billings Thursday to take part in a participatory art event where people pour red sand into the cracks of sidewalks. It’s a visual reminder not to let the victims of human trafficking fall through the cracks of society.
Even in Billings.
“I was asked to answer the question, does it happen here? The short answer is yes. Sadly,” said Erica Willis, executive director of Tumbleweed. She says youth who have runaway or in crisis are especially vulnerable to human traffickers.
That’s no surprise to FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter who’s tasked with investigating these cases.
“They’re in a vulnerable state. They may be homeless. They need a place to lay their head. They need shelter. They need food,” he said. “And they pay for that sometimes with sex.”
Members of the Human Trafficking Task Force says others at risk are children in the foster care system, those with mental illness, or those who have suffered from abuse.
But it can happen to anyone.
“My story is really not typical for something that would happen here in Montana. So I want to just say that up front,” said a survivor, who requested that her name and picture be withheld.
At the time, she was a college student studying abroad in Florence, Italy when a man approached her at a party and offered to bring her a drink.
“He returned with 2 drinks and I drank mine fast so I could get out of there. But I quickly felt really strange,” she said.
She remembers being led away and raped. She said the rapes continued until an opportunity arose and she escaped.
“I made it out and I went straight home to my apartment. What I needed most was for the whole thing to be over, for this to have never happened,” she said. “And I forced it out of my mind. I buried it. And I went back to school a few days later and never said a word to anyone. For 12 years.”
She told the crowd, eventually she told a few friends. Now she’s starting to tell her story publically. She urged other victims to come forward and do the same.
“If you have been sexually assaulted, abused, hurt or exploited and you haven’t told anyone, please reconsider,” she said. “Not talking about it, ignoring it, burying it, it can work for a while but at a great cost.”
“And it doesn’t matter how strong or stoic you are trauma is trauma and it affects your life in ways you don’t even see,” she said.
She says with help she has healed and thrived.
Human trafficking takes many forms. Besides the commercial sex trade, some are forced into labor or servitude, debt bondage, to be a child soldier, or had their organs harvested.