Human Trafficking Exists In Yankton Area

Emma Grate speaks to area organizations as part of her outreach fighting human trafficking.

In her work with victims, Emma Grate knows human trafficking doesn’t happen just in cities — it can be found on the streets and even in the homes of Yankton and surrounding communities.

“There is human trafficking in our state and even in our community,” she said. “Trafficking thrives in rural states like ours and happens to anyone of any age.”

Grate works as the anti-human trafficking coordinator for the River City Domestic Violence Center in Yankton. Her work ranges from speaking at events to putting up posters in places like bars, gas stations and motels.

“Trafficking is a huge issue in our community, state and nation. It’s seen everywhere, and it’s something we need to pay attention to,” she said. “If you report something that just doesn’t seem quite right, it can make a huge difference in someone’s life.”

A difference exists between human smuggling and human trafficking, Grate said. The definition of trafficking includes the factors of force, fraud and coercion. Also, human trafficking isn’t limited to the sex trade, as it can involve cash, drugs or any other motivation.

What does trafficking look like in South Dakota?

The Polaris Project collects data from each states for public education and to combat human trafficking, Grate said. In 2019, the Polaris Project received reports of 25 trafficking cases from South Dakota.

Out of those 25 cases, 15 were sex trafficking, 7 were labor trafficking, two were a combination of both sex and labor trafficking, and the other notification wasn’t specific enough and didn’t have enough information to make a determination.

While 25 seems like a small number, Grate pointed out that as little as 1% of cases are reported.

“Now, take that 25 by 100, and that’s what likely exists in ours state, and we’re just not seeing it,” she said. “There have been 527 trafficking-related calls to the Polaris Project (from South Dakota) since 2007. When you multiply that number by 100, it’s a lot of calls in our state.”

South Dakota contains two major interstates, I-29 and I-90, often referred to as the “Midwest Pipeline” for human trafficking because those highways make it easy for trafficking across the state, Grate said.

“The interstates have Sioux Falls and Rapid City (located on them), but even Yankton’s not far from the two interstates,” she said. “It happens here, with people being brought together.”


Trafficking generally falls into major classifications. Event trafficking creates a major draw of people, forming an immediate market for traffickers and victims with customers from a large area creating demand.

The Super Bowl is the largest trafficking event in the U.S., with thousands of people trafficking at it, Grate said. South Dakota has its own event trafficking, notably the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and pheasant season, that draws even hundreds of thousands of people from across the nation, she said.

Another type, familial trafficking, has become common in communities of all types, Grate said.

“Parents traffic their children, their nieces and nephews, their spouses and their parents or whoever is in their households that they have power and control over and can make money off their exploitation,” she said.

The trafficking of children has become particularly common, Grate said.

“We see parents traffic their children for a variety of reasons, like drug abuse for the money to feed (their habit). There are a lot of really ugly reasons when it comes to child trafficking,” she said.

“One of the most commons forms can be extended family members who the mom and dad would never know. It could be an aunt or uncle taking the child out for a day and then trafficking the child during that time.”


The best weapon against trafficking comes from citizens reporting what they see on the streets or in their neighborhoods, Grate said.

“I really like to educate people, that if they see something that doesn’t feel right and you feel it’s wrong, then say something,” she said. “It’s better to say something and be wrong than to choose not to say anything (and have it be true).”

A red flag includes someone using multiple forms of identification, signs of abuse, bruises on the face and neck, malnourishment and tattoos marking the person as property of someone else.

In case of grave danger, Grate advises calling 911 or local law enforcement. However, she strongly advises against confronting traffickers, which can lead to a dangerous situation.

“Traffickers are very dangerous people, and you have to remain safe to help. If you encounter a victim in the bathroom or somewhere private, you can ask, ‘Are you OK? Do you need help?’” she said.

“You can offer your cell phone for them to call for help. Just letting them use your cell phone can make a huge difference.”

People often ask why the victims don’t walk away from the situation, Grate said. However, traffickers will often threaten the victim’s family if the person tries to leave, even showing a photo of the family and address to back up their threat.

“The victim doesn’t want to put their family in harm,” she said. “If the victim leaves the situation, the trafficker might go after the people they love.”

Other reasons for staying may include drug addiction, either to cope with pain or used by traffickers to hook that person; mental health issues or even the victim falling in love with the trafficker.

In addition, traffickers often isolate the victim from family and friends, Grate said. Victims may not come home because they fear they’ll be judged and people won’t be there for them.

“They think family and friends won’t understand what the victim has been through,” she said. “The victims stay because they have nowhere else.”

Grate also works with the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) issue, which remains a major problem both on and off reservations and other tribal lands.

“MMIW is a very important topic, which goes hand in hand with trafficking, which is often interwoven,” she said.


Grate works with the Call to Freedom task force that brings together anti-trafficking workers, law enforcement and others interested in helping victims. As part of her outreach, she has put up posters, pull tabs and stickers in gas stations, bars, truck stops and even bathroom stalls with information and hotline numbers.

“I also do outreach with clerks, cashiers, bartenders, hotel maids, all the people who come into contact with survivors,” she said. “We give the basic information on what trafficking looks like and what you can do if you see signs of human trafficking.”

Sex trafficking is reported in every state, and more than 80% of victims are U.S. citizens, Grate said. “It’s happening to our own citizens, in our communities from everywhere,” she said.

Trafficking shows no signs of slowing down or going away, Grate said.

“Why does human trafficking thrive? It’s as simple as demand. There’s demand for it. Human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world behind drugs, which is huge. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry.”

Grate sees much more awareness.

“I think our society has become more aware of it in the last 5-10 years,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of the case numbers shooting up. I think’s we’re seeing more things now that we may not have caught on to before. Speaking to groups is very important.”

Is progress being made?

“In terms of education and awareness, I would say yes. I want Yankton and surrounding communities to receive the message,” she said.

“We’re using social media and other means, and the community really seems receptive to making a difference.”

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