Dark side of ND oil boom: Sex trafficking

Oil patch sex trade an 'infestation'
Oil patch sex trade an 'infestation'

Windie Lazenko is on a crusade to end sex trafficking in North Dakota.

While it's an issue that's been around the United States for a while, it's become an "infestation" in the Bakken region after the oil boom, she told CNBC on Thursday.

"The conditions of the oil field have invited an increase in the reality of trafficking there," Lazenko said in an interview with "Closing Bell."

Windie Lazenko, with the anti-trafficking group 4her North Dakota, stands for a photo in Williston, N.D., Dec. 16, 2014.
Eric Gay | AP Photo

The activist was once a victim herself. As a 13-year-old runaway, Lazenko said she was sold for sex. Now she's channeling her energies into helping others. She founded 4her North Dakota, which provides care to sex trafficking victims, and is trying to raise funds for a shelter.

"Awareness has been one of the biggest challenges," she said.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., agreed that trafficking is an "epidemic" in the region. She's been an advocate on the issue and has co-sponsored legislation that focuses on protecting runaway and homeless youth.

"We know that those children are the most likely to be victimized, the most likely to be sold into this lifestyle," Heitkamp told "Closing Bell."

"Those people who think this is willing buyer, willing seller, another iteration of prostitution are wrong. These are children—the average age is 13 in this country."

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Sex trafficking has become more ingrained in the U.S. and more difficult to fight, she added. While it is a global phenomenon, she pointed out that 83 percent of all victims in the U.S. are Americans.

It is also connected with drug crimes, gunrunning and other crimes, Heitkamp noted.

"These are organized crime rings that are engaged in a lot of very horrible activities for our society," she said. "This is only one part of it but it is the most heinous and hideous victimization we can have in our country."

The senator also believes adult women need help with finding a safe harbor, expunging records, paying off student loans and finding jobs.

Recently, two bipartisan bills on human and sex trafficking were passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act provides support to victims and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act would help increase law enforcement resources, improve victim services and strengthen penalties against perpetrators. Heitkamp said she worked on and supported both bills.

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Meanwhile, Lazenko is concentrating on North Dakota despite the collapse in oil prices.

"Right now we're going to remain with our focus on North Dakota because we don't know if this dip in the oil prices is going to stick and so we don't want to make any rush decisions," she said.

Once Lazenko's established a solid program in the state, however, she hopes to duplicate her efforts in other oil boom towns.