In oil fields of North Dakota, many of the drilling rigs have gone silent since the sharp drop in oil prices. Still, the industry continues to lumber along here so that tens of thousands still have jobs and many hundreds are still being sold—women and girls that is and sometimes men and boys. The sex trade business is alive and not well in oil country.
I thought of this tragedy while previewing the movie Priceless: She’s Worth Fighting For which opens in theaters this Friday. I’ll tell you about the movie first and then I’ll tell you about Windie Lazenko, who came to North Dakota 3 years years ago to fight human trafficking. Having worked in the adult sex industry for almost 20 years, she understood how desperately trapped victims can feel. By the way, Windie, a nationally recognized survivor, loved the movie.
Priceless is the story of James Stevens, a husband and father who lived a good life until the death of his wife. He loses custody of his little girl, [his mother cares for her] and has trouble holding down a job.
James agrees to take one-time job driving a box truck cross-country for cash--no questions asked. After he accidentally swerves off the road into a ditch, he checks on the unknown cargo and discovers two beautiful and frightened sisters from Mexico. James continues his trip with the girls in the cab. They tell him they are being sent by their father to pay his gambling debt and will be given jobs as waitresses. After the exchange of money and the girls, it’s obvious they will not be filling out waitress applications. The girls had not realized what they were in for. James becomes determined to save them, risking his life to do it. Along the way, James’s antagonism towards God is challenged.
This Christian, anti-human trafficking movie, rated PG13, is a suspenseful love story that offers a compelling glimpse of how girls can become trapped in the callous sex trade. Go here to learn more about organizations partnering with the movie to work against human trafficking.
Oil Boom Attracts Human Trafficking
Windie Lazenko knows the entrapment of the sex trade industry and has dedicated her life to saving others. She is the executive director and founder of 4her North Dakota the only direct service organization that provides care to victims of sex trafficking in the state.
This was her reaction to the movie: “It was very well done. I am emotional but that's to be expected. But yes. Loved it. I think it portrayed a very good understanding on the reality without sensationalizing it.”
Windie knows the story first hand in real life. “I was trafficked as a young person, so it appeared to be choice after that,” she explained in a phone interview. Windie was sexually abused from the age of 8, ran away at 13, married at 16, and by 19 was a mother. Prostitution led to pornography, then strip dancing. Today, at age 47, she has five grown children and three grandchildren. “My kids were part of my mess, but God has done an amazing healing work,” she said.
At the last strip club she worked, some of the girls started going to church. “One girl who had been talking a lot about God in the dressing room walked past me wearing a cross,” Windie recalled. She demanded of the girl, “How could God—if there is one—how could he love you?” Windie thought about God and asked him, “Okay God, if you are there, where were you when I was molested?”
As some of the girls left the club and rebuilt their lives, Windie started crying out to God. On stage one night, she was overcome with the feeling that she had to leave. She walked out and never returned. She found a strong mentor and leaned on her newfound faith to get on track. Now, she works relentlessly to get others out.
Fighting for Victims
Before coming to Williston, Windie spent six years learning and receiving training to advocate against human trafficking. She worked with at-risk teen girls through churches in California and then in Montana. In Montana, she heard that girls were being bussed into North Dakota for prostitution. By then, Windie was speaking across the country. In September 2013, had just accepted a job in Miami as a survivor/victim advocate. “But two weeks before my job started, God laid it on my heart to check out North Dakota for myself,” she said.
Windie was shocked. “It was horrifying to be in rural America and see the amount of blatant pimp controlled prostitution,” she said.
Sitting in a coffee shop in Williston, Windie prayed, “I really don’t want to do this, God. Winter is coming and I’m a Southern California girl. Give me a sign if you want me here.” Windie looked up and made eye contact with three ladies at the table beside her. They introduced themselves. “We were just talking about all the prostitution in our city,” one lady said. “We don’t know what to do. We need help.”
Windie moved to North Dakota the following month and formed 4her North Dakota working with the FBI and federal prosecutors. She educates law enforcement and others in the community to recognize and reach out to victims and put them in touch with her. “I’m not law enforcement,” she said. “I’m not going to bust them and they know I understand what it’s like.”
U.S. Department of Justice Attorney Tim Purdon has credited Windie with making a huge difference such as providing critical emotional support to a woman whose testimony was essential in taking down a man enticing women to North Dakota for prostitution. She has worked with police sex sting operations and works directly with victims; helping them get away from pimps. “I tell them that they were created for more than this, that they deserve a better life,” she said. Still, Windie said it’s not always easy to convince a woman to get out because they are often brainwashed and bonded to their pimps who might beat them up if they don’t meet their quota.
Not Letting Up
Despite the downturn in the oil industry, sex trafficking has increased. “Someone from BCI [Bureau of Criminal Investigation] confirmed that as drug trafficking increases here in the Bakken so is sex trafficking,” Windie said. “They go hand in hand.”
Windie is often called to South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming to help as the problem increases and services are seriously lacking. She expressed frustration also with the lack of understanding from law enforcement. Recently, she was involved with a sting operation where the trafficker was given special treatment and handed a college opportunity as part of his probation because he is military, while the victim received nothing and is still being terrorized by him.
Although the downturn in oil hasn’t slowed human trafficking, sadly, support for 4her North Dakota has tapered off. “It's been hard and there is an incredible amount of work to do. Incredible. But as of now 4her isn't leaving,” she said.
These girls are my number one priority. I keep the success stories close to my heart and keep on doing what I can do.”