On a rural dirt road far northeast of Missoula, a nondescript log home sits surrounded by woods and fields. Inside, up a flight of stairs, the home's owners, Rick and Pat Freeland, have arranged two rooms with five beds, decorated as if for five little girls. A teddy bear is propped up against a pillow on each bed.
"They're very jealous of each other," Pat says, explaining the room's setup to a visitor. "They've been taught this by their pimps, and that's how they control them."
"They" are victims of human trafficking, and this house doubles as a shelter for them known as "Traffick Refuge." Since 2011, the Freelands have opened their doors to young women who have been sexually exploited—that is, trafficked—typically at the hands of a pimp.
The Freelands lack formal training as counselors, but they do their best to help victims. Guided by their Christian faith and experience as parents, the Freelands welcome the women as "a part of our family," Rick says. For traumatized young people accustomed to abuse, that welcome can be difficult to accept.
"The first 30 days they're here," Rick says, "you watch them walk down the stairs and they're wondering what's going to hit them. So it's all about rest, safety, change in basic eating habits—all the basic, basic stuff."
But even as the Freelands focus on offering simple, tangible forms of support—acquiring legal identification for the women, allowing them a night's rest—they know how much more the victims require.
"The difficult part is, everybody—good people—want to take them in, make them warm, give them a teddy bear and life is going to be okay for them, and it's not," Pat says.
Despite their desire to shelter and assist as many trafficking victims as possible, the Freelands rarely get the opportunity. The challenge, the Freelands say, is multifold. First, women rarely escape the control of their pimps or other traffickers. If they do become free, it can be difficult to convince the justifiably distrustful victims to move out to rural Montana and live with a couple they've never met. (The exact location of the safe house has been protected due to concerns about traffickers attempting to retaliate against victims or to entice them back.) And even when a woman wants help, she and the Freelands must navigate the bureaucracies of the legal, penal and child-services systems.
So far, in the four years since the Freelands established Traffick Refuge, they've only served six young women. And on a recent weekday, the safehouse is empty. The five beds remain neatly made and untouched.
"Getting the girls here," Rick says, "is the hardest problem."
The first time E. Wood worked as a prostitute, it was at a truck stop in Oklahoma City. She was 19 and far away from the Flathead Indian Reservation, where she says she was raised in a home rife with violence, sexual abuse and drug and alcohol abuse.
In 2000, Wood says she was drinking, working as a stripper and in the process of losing custody of her two young children when a friend approached her and said she knew a guy who could help. "He knows how to make a lot of money really fast, if you wanna go—if you're not scared," Wood recalls her friend saying.
"And I was like, 'Oh, no, I'm not scared,'" Wood says. "And I went to the truck stop with them, and I made a lot of money really fast."
But the money soon began to disappear. First, the guy asked for gas money. Then, he asked for more of Wood's earnings, for protection. Soon, he collected it all.
"I didn't know what pimps were at that time, and he was a pimp," Wood says. "And he had five girls. There was five of them. The youngest one was, I think, 15. Fifteen going on 16. And she was the most experienced, too. He'd had her since she was 13. She was very young."
In Oklahoma, Wood entered an expansive underworld. According to widely cited data, human trafficking ranks as the second-most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, behind only the drug trade. Globally, traffickers compel an estimated 27 million people to work in the sex trade and other sectors. In part, these alarming statistics derive from human trafficking's broad definition as the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a person to perform labor or commercial sexual acts.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- Kat Werner of YWCA Missoula, believes we are in the midst of a “paradigm shift” in how the public views human trafficking.
Despite the general acceptance of these numbers, questions remain about how they're supported and whether they're overstated. A 2011 Village Voice investigative report focused on a celebrity-backed anti-trafficking campaign that claimed there were "between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States." While The New York Times and other news outlets repeated the statistic, the Voice found only 8,236 arrests for child prostitution over a decade in the entire country. That's an average of 824 a year, most of which occurred in major cities.
Officials in Montana acknowledge the number of recorded trafficking cases in the state is low—almost nonexistent—but they don't believe those numbers are indicative of the true extent of the problem. To make the data more reflective of the perceived extent of the problem, they say, law enforcement must find more perpetrators and, thus, more victims.
"You don't want the numbers to go up, but you want the numbers to go up," says Bryan Lockerby, administrator for the Montana Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation. "We want the reports to increase, so that we'll have a little better frame of mind [about the nature of the problem]."
As far as investigators and activists can tell so far, sex traffickers operate far more prevalently in Montana and the rest of the country than labor traffickers. Often, though not exclusively, sex trafficking assumes the form of prostitution, primarily of young women. And while state and local officials struggle to root out specific incidents of trafficking, they do sometimes overcome the challenge and make a bust.