POPLAR, Montana (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Life on the remote Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northern Montana has all the ingredients for sex trafficking - poverty, isolation, joblessness and violence, topped with an epidemic of crystal meth addiction.
Drug users are selling their babies, daughters and sisters for the potent stimulant that is ravaging Native American communities such as the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes living on the desolate plains of Fort Peck, say community leaders, experts and federal authorities.
“We’re in crisis mode,” said Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure. “We have mothers giving their children away for sexual favors for drugs. We have teenagers and young girls giving away sexual favors for drugs.”
No numbers record specific rates of local sex trafficking, which can often be buried in crimes of sexual assault, abuse, prostitution, abandonment or kidnapping. But it is a crime, poorly documented and fuelled by drug abuse, plaguing Indian reservations across the United States.
The rate of meth use among American Indians is the highest of any ethnicity in the country and more than twice as high as any other group, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
The number of drug cases on Indian lands nationwide rose seven-fold from 2009 to 2014, and crime rates on some reservations are five times higher than national averages, according to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration report.
On Fort Peck, a reservation of some 10,000 people, six newborn babies tested positive for meth in just two weeks in April and were taken to a hospital 300 miles away, said Howard Bemer, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent for Fort Peck.
Meth use and other crime exploded with the tapping of reserves in the Bakken oil fields to the east and south of the reservation in the last decade. The boom brought tens of thousands of workers, flush with cash, to the region.
With the drop in world oil prices, many of those workers are gone but the crime has not, said Melina Healey, a trafficking expert at the Child Law Policy and Legislation Clinic at Loyola University Chicago.
“The boom brought problems that don’t disappear when the boom disappears,” she said.
The drug trade helps incite sex trafficking, as people exchange themselves, family members or friends to get high, she said.
“If someone is addicted to meth, they’re not in their right mind. It is much easier to get them to do things that they never would have done if they weren’t addicted,” she said at a recent anti-trafficking conference in Poplar, the reservation’s tribal headquarters.
Drug debt is a forceful driver of trafficking, and dealers threaten users to pay up by any means, said Sgt. Grant Snyder, a trafficking investigator with the Minneapolis Police Department.
“Maybe it’s your 12-year-old daughter, maybe it’s your 5-year-old daughter,” he said.
A harrowing number of victims are trafficked by their own family members.
“Traffickers are not just scary men who drive around in Cadillacs in their leather trench coats,” said Healey.
“A trafficker can be a parent or guardian. A trafficker can be an aunt or an uncle or it can be a boyfriend or another friend.”
The often close relationships between abuser and abused present a web of problems such as forcing victims to leave home for their protection, experts said.
Victims may fear the community and authorities won’t believe them and will instead defend the trafficker, said an Indian Health Service social worker who did not want to be identified.
“Nobody wants to go after a family member,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
On the bleak, windswept reservation along the Missouri River just 20 miles from the Canadian border, more than half the children live in poverty and jobs are scarce.
Most people work in ranching, mining and farming, but one in three is unemployed. The largest communities are Wolf Point and Poplar, rundown hamlets that are little more than crossroads with a smattering of stores, gas stations, bars and fewer than 4,000 residents between them.
Outside of town, dirt roads link the weathered houses and tumble-down trailers that dot the seemingly boundless grasslands.
Demand for foster care for children removed from homes due to substance abuse is showing a sharp increase, said Courage Crawford, a program director at the Spotted Bull Recovery Resource Center in Poplar which offers rehabilitation programs.
“There aren’t a lot of places in the country that have a perfect storm of both being this rural and this under served of basic services ... and also such high rates of poverty and also such rates of abuse,” Healey said.
Last month, the reservation was mourning the death by beating of a 13-month-old girl. A woman responsible for caring for her, while the child’s mother was in jail, has pleaded not guilty to murder.
A memorial service program showed a photograph of the smiling chubby-cheeked girl with shining eyes and a flowered headband.
“With the loss of this child I think we’ve hit the bottom of the barrel,” said Azure, the tribal chief.
Also this year, a Wolf Point man was accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl grabbed at a local playground.
Meth is blamed for 40 percent of crime on native land, and most tribal police say domestic violence and assault has increased as a result of addiction, according to the NCAI.
Just thirteen tribal police patrol Fort Peck’s 3,200 square miles, according to the local Journal newspaper.
Across the country, fewer than 3,000 tribal and federal officers patrol more than 56 million acres of Indian country.
Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org