By Katherine Lymn | Mar 18th 2015 - 9pm Grand Forks Herald
Legislators on the North Dakota House Judiciary Committee look over the proposed human trafficking uniform law, S.B. 2107, at their meeting Wednesday in the Prairie Room of the State Capitol in Bismarck.
BISMARCK -- Legislators can see a little more clearly now the effects of a controversial abortion amendment on the state's uniform human trafficking bill.
The amendment, which says state funds for human trafficking victims "may not be used to refer for or counsel in favor of abortion," still allows for victims to use other avenues to find advice on abortion, North Dakota Catholic Conference Executive Director Chris Dodson explained Wednesday to the House Judiciary Committee.
Opponents quickly questioned the implications of the amendment after it was introduced in the Senate's committee last month, saying it would "gag" service providers from giving certain advice to pregnant trafficking victims.
Committee Chairman Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, acknowledged the controversy around the amendment, but called it "fairly innocuous," just aligning the bill with current state laws prohibiting taxpayer dollars spent on abortions.
Dodson explained what the amendment would and wouldn't outlaw: service providers, for example the North Dakota Council on Abused Women's Services, can't allow state-funded positions to refer individuals for abortions. But if the need arises, the provider can direct the victim to a person whose salary comes from other funding sources.
And people in state-funded positions or at entirely state-funded organizations can still refer victims who inquire about abortion elsewhere, like to one of the Department of Health's nine family planning clinics, which are federally required to provide abortion referrals if asked.
"Basically what it prevents is a direct referral," Dodson said.
Still, individuals offered fiery testimony against the amendment Wednesday.
The amendment raises "a distracting and diverse debate about abortion," Bismarck resident Rebecca Matthews said.
Brandi Jude, the founder of Bismarck advocacy group Invisible Innocence, still called the amendment a "gag," saying it silences social workers and advocates.
Statewide anti-trafficking coalition FUSE stayed away from the debate, focusing instead on the bigger picture of helping victims.
"The worst-case scenario is not supporting trafficking victims," coordinator Christina Sambor said.
Another bill, SB 2199, would allocate $1 million for victim services, and would fall under the umbrella of the abortion amendment if both are successful.
While the abortion amendment raised eyebrows and brought out some testimony in opposition, it hasn't slowed progress on the state's package of human trafficking bills.
That's more than can be said at the federal level.
Congressional Democrats have accused Republicans of sneaking the Hyde Amendment, preventing federal funds from being used for abortions, into a bill to provide money to victims from fees charged to their traffickers. The bill has bipartisan support, but its passage has been held up as Republicans and Democrats fight over the amendment.
"Throughout my work to stop human trafficking for the past year and a half, I've spoken with many victims and advocates who need support and resources to prevent human trafficking and reduce the cycle of abuse," U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement on the issue. "They deserve better than petty politics that have ensnared this issue, as stopping human trafficking should be something we can all agree on."
Concerns over minors
In North Dakota’s uniform bill, while it was in the Senate Judiciary Committee, senators softened the immunity section offering an affirmative defense for more serious crimes instead of the straight immunity for misdemeanor offenses like forgery and theft. The crimes must be proven to be a direct result of being a trafficking victim -- "so it's not just a blanket immunity for all those things," Sambor testified before House committee members Wednesday.
Pimps often give victims quotas, which they might meet through theft if unable to make it all with commercial sex. When they don't meet their quotas, victims suffer brutal punishments or are trained to fear that possibility.
Rep. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, focused heavily on the Safe Harbor provision, which grants immunity to minors who would otherwise be charged with prostitution.
Larson said she was concerned victims would lose out on the chance to find resources through the criminal justice system, which she has seen help rehabilitate youth, if they are not prosecuted.
"I'm wondering if in an attempt to recognize that these young people are being victimized, we're taking away some of the tools to be able to adequately treat them," she said.
But advocates and service providers responded in testimony that the problem was more of how the victims were looked at -- and the whole idea behind entering them in the criminal justice system is that they've done something wrong.
Youthworks homeless program manager Mark Heinert urged legislators to "dig deep with the greatest amount of empathy" to realize that victims of trafficking often have had tough upbringings that make certain opportunities, like a pimp's allure, seem like a good idea.
Because of a pimp's manipulation, service providers like him struggle to build relationships with victims. Treating the victims as criminals -- making a pimp's threat of arrest a reality -- makes that job harder.
"I, as a trafficker, have a greater power over you if my threats are part of reality," Heinert said.
The committee didn't take any action on the bills Wednesday. Testimony will continue on Monday on SB 2107 for an absent committee member, Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, to speak about it, and may take action on it next week.
Along with Safe Harbor, the uniform law increases penalties for certain circumstances like recruiting a victim from a domestic violence or runaway shelters, requiring traffickers to pay restitution and holding businesses liable if they knowingly engage in trafficking.