Freeing the Black Hills

Local group spreads awareness of human trafficking during rally

By Sarah Pridgeon

There’s a dark side to large events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Behind the merrymaking, criminals take advantage of the crowds to usher vulnerable young people far away from their homes.

For the last few years, a local citizen group based out of Countryside Church in Spearfish has been working to spread awareness of human trafficking. Most people think it’s a problem limited to large cities, but Free the Black Hills wants residents and businesses alike to be aware that little towns on major thoroughfares are also likely hotspots for traffickers stopping for refreshments or sleep.

“They want to go to places where they are anonymous and can hide out. They don’t go to the busiest places, except for during rally when you are all blended together,” says Kay McKim, local representative of Free the Black Hills.

The organization has seen successes from its work during the rally over the last few years.

“Three years ago, 12 children were identified during the rally and six were rescued,” says McKim.

“It was due to just helping the public be aware and working with the restaurants, hotels, campgrounds. We’ve started going to spas and salons because sometimes they bring young women in to be groomed.”

Identifying criminals has its dangers, of course – something volunteers found out first hand during that first year.

“They went to Sturgis and handed out missing children booklets during the rally, for that week period. They found it to be somewhat dangerous because they identified some traffickers and the victims were slipping in and out,” says McKim.

Safety, in the wake of this, became of paramount importance. The group now warns that traffickers should not be approached directly, while volunteers work behind the scenes to raise awareness and provide information to businesses and locals.

Now, with the help of its national and international partners, the organization identifies children who are known to be missing and may be have been trafficked, distributing booklets of photographs created by Free International to businesses where traffickers might choose to stop and local law enforcement.

“They may be asking for food, they may be asking for money, and that’s when they pick them up and offer them a better way of life – and then they’re trapped,” says McKim.

“In all of the smaller towns, you never know what you might see and hear.”

The group has also created reference cards, listing the red flags of human trafficking as well as basic questions to ask, terms to listen out for and what to do if you see the signs of a potential victim.

“The reference cards, and other awareness materials, have been distributed to over 375 businesses in the area by volunteers who had discussions with business staff about how to be ‘eyes and ears’ in the area,” says Christina Fuhr, Free the Black Hills co-founder.

“Also, in conjunction with the West River Human Trafficking Task Force, Free International and other great groups, volunteers distributed 20,000 labeled lip balms and Missing Child booklets to those same businesses in the Northern Black Hills, including Sundance, Beulah and Hulett, with the goal of protecting those who are vulnerable, promoting rescues and offering hope to those being exploited.”

The lip balms, which were distributed during this year’s rally, is labeled with questions to help victims assess whether they are being trafficked, such as: are you threatened if you try to leave? Forced to do something you do not want to do?

The organization is still seeking sponsors for the cases, which cost $200 each for 1000 lip balms.

“Local churches and groups and individuals have sponsored many of the 20 cases. Several cases are yet to be sponsored,” says Fuhr.

“People interested in helping this cause can sponsor a case or partial case by sending funds to Countryside Church in Spearfish with a note saying: lip balms.”

Signs of human trafficking include young people who appear distressed, malnourished or abused; are not allowed to speak for themselves or move freely; are guarded in a room or campsite; are inconsistent in their stories and lack a sense of time and place; or don’t have access to their own ID or money. Trafficked children may also behave or dress older than their age and may leave their hotel room at odd hours or appear with a different person to the one they arrived with.

If you are in a position to converse with the child, the organization recommends asking questions such as whether they are in town for work or vacation, how long they are staying, where they have been and where they are going and who they are traveling with. If the answers seem vague or suspicious, report your concerns to local law enforcement or call the Human Trafficking Hotline.

“All local businesses and concerned citizens are encouraged to be aware and if you see something, say something. Our local law enforcement can follow up,” says Fuhr.

The Human Trafficking Hotline number is 1-888-3737-888. Alternatively, text BeFree to 233733.

“There are some terrible stories, but also some wonderful stories, and we are just wanting people who are the eyes and ears of the community to be aware,” says McKim.

“That’s really what Free the Black Hills is all about: awareness that this happens in small towns.”