With President Trump's controversy-filled first week in the White House dominating the headlines, it might be easy to forget about some of the other issues that directly affect the lives of young women across the United States.
One of those issues is human trafficking. An estimated 400,000 U.S. minors are ensnared in that tragic situation. The vast majority of those teens are women.
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, and Susan Collins, R-ME, are joining forces to keep that issue in the political spotlight. On Tuesday, the bipartisan pair of female senators reintroduced legislation aimed at identifying and protecting human trafficking survivors.
The Stop, Observe, Ask and Respond (SOAR) to Health and Wellness Act seeks to train healthcare providers, including doctors and nurses, about the warning signs of trafficking. Several members of the House of Representatives have also introduced a version of the bill, which builds on a pilot program run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Heitkamp spoke to Refinery29 by phone Tuesday about why she's making this issue a priority — and how she's going to vote on key Trump appointments heading to the Senate floor.
There’s obviously a lot going on in the world of politics right now. Why is it important that this issue of human trafficking remains in the spotlight?
“Number one is, this problem isn’t going away and it continues to escalate. I’m not convinced that the amount of trafficking is getting greater, I just think we’re better at detecting it and better at offering services that encourage women and children to leave their perpetrator and seek help. It’s really critically important that we not let up on the gas at all on these programs. Now that traffickers have found a market in [North Dakota], they continue to traffic. That’s the sad fact.”
Your bill focuses on training healthcare workers. How does that help?
“We know that about one-third of all trafficking victims seek health care for one reason or the other. It may be the only time that the trafficking victim is [separated] from their trafficker… We’ve always recognized that healthcare workers are on the frontline of helping victims. Training for the signs of trafficking can help us identify victims earlier. When we [held a Senate subcommittee] hearing on Backpage.com, I asked the family members whose children had been victimized what they would recommend in terms of prevention and early intervention. They basically said ‘training healthcare workers.’ So this idea was substantiated by the parents of the children who had been victimized.’”
You’ve been working on this issue for years. What’s it going to take to get a broader, more comprehensive fix?
“I think number one is continuing to work in a bipartisan fashion. One of the reasons why we’ve been successful with the past legislation is that it’s been very, very bipartisan. We’re proud of the work we’ve done with Cindy McCain. She’s obviously the wife of a very big Republican — she’s absolutely a soldier on battling human trafficking. The biggest challenge that we have is getting people to recognize it happens. This is so horrific, it’s hard for people to imagine it, especially as it related to children. After they recognize that it’s there, taking them to the next step of, what’s our obligation to prevent this from happening and to prosecute it?”
I think many people don’t realize that, in addition to sex trafficking, labor trafficking is a big problem.
“I’m convinced that in North Dakota, in our time of very low unemployment, with the inability to find people who would work in McDonald's, that there probably was a huge amount of labor trafficking, but we’re just not trained to see it, we’re just not trained to investigate it and we’re not trained to prosecute it. That’s really the next step in all this. Don’t think we’re just focused on sex trafficking; we’re also going to be very very focused on labor trafficking as well. It’s slavery, and it was outlawed years ago.”
In other news, you’ve decided to vote against confirming Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. In a statement, you noted that 95% of calls to your office opposed her nomination. How much do these calls influence decisions on Capitol Hill?
“It’s my job to do the vetting and I have access to the person, to the information [about them]. In this case, it was one factor in our decision-making that there was just an overwhelming response. When you open up a portal and say, 'Give us some advice,' and one nominee gets five or six comments, and this nominee got almost 2,000, that’s something that tells you that there is a huge concern.”
President Trump is expected to announce his nominee for the vacant Supreme Court seat tonight. Some of your fellow Senate Democrats have basically promised to filibuster any nominee the president picks. Will you join them?
“I think it’s important to note that the standard for approval of a nomination of a Supreme Court justice historically has been 60 votes, so it’s really important that we not exaggerate this notion of the filibuster. What I’m saying is, I will not do what the Republicans did with Merrick Garland. I believed at the time that it was was an abrogation of our constitutional responsibility on advise and consent. I believe that this nominee should have a chance to meet senators personally, this nominee should have a chance to go [in front of] the committee and have the American public see. From that, I will make up my decision on whether I’m going to vote for or against them. I believe that the process was broken during the Merrick Garland [nomination], but that is not an excuse for us to take part in expanding or in fact approving of a broken process. We need to have a process where we have a hearing and that we make a decision, and that person comes to a vote.”
Do you have any thoughts on the two reported finalists?
“No, I know very, very little about them. I look forward to meeting whoever President Trump advances for the Supreme Court.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.