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Wichita a key spot for rescuing kids in sex trade

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Sep. 17, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Sep. 17, 2011, at 7:07 a.m.

Signs that a child is at risk

Do you know a youth at risk for commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking? Here are some warning signs signaling a young person should seek professional help.

* Provocative dress, carrying condoms and large amounts of cash.

* An older "boyfriend" who appears possessive or abusive.

* Acting withdrawn, solitary and secretive.

* Truancy or dropping out of school.

* Behavior problems.

* Tattoos he or she is reluctant to explain, especially with initials or names of a man. This is known as "branding."

* Language involving sex-trade slang, such as "the game," "the life," "working a track," "turned out."

* Signs of injuries or sexually-transmitted diseases.

Wichita sits near the crossroads of the nation's sex-trafficking highway.

"The pimps have routes they travel... and they include I-35 and I-70," police Officer Kent Bauman of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit told a gathering of health care providers Friday at Via Christi Hospital on Harry.

Police have documented known pimps recruiting girls as young as 12 from Wichita and selling them for sex across the nation, Bauman said.

They find them:

* At amateur nights in Wichita strip clubs

* On streets and at schools

* Through their Facebook pages

Internet traps

Even children from stable homes in Wichita's affluent neighborhoods can become targets of the billion-dollar commercial sex trade, said Detective Jennifer Wright with the Exploited and Missing Child Unit's task force to fight Internet crimes against children.

"You've got teenagers on Facebook, and it's hard to find a teenager who doesn't have a smartphone with a camera," Wright said. "They're out there looking for independence, exploring their world, exploring their sexuality."

Sexting — the practice of teenagers trading provocative pictures — has become a trapping tool for pimps.

They've posed as teen boys and know how to talk a 13-year-old into sharing a nude photo of herself, Wright said.

"Then all of the sudden, they're getting blackmailed on Facebook," Wright said. "They're being told, 'If you don't do this for me again on your webcam, I'm going to blast this out to all your family and 700 friends.'

"Then it's, 'I want to meet you.' Then all of the sudden, they're gone," Wright said.

Bauman mapped where police have found Wichita girls working the sex trade against their will: San Francisco; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Dallas; Houston; Oklahoma City; Tulsa; Atlanta; Kansas City; Birmingham, Ala.; Shreveport, La.; New York.

"The FBI says we are one of the top cities of origination for sex trafficking," said Karen Countryman-Roswurm, a social worker who coordinates Wichita's Anti-Sexual Exploitation Roundtable for Community Action.

That group brings together social services, health care, police and prosecutors to try to protect the city's young people.

Because of those efforts Wichita is also gaining a reputation as one of the best cities for helping the lost.

First responders

Friday's training targeted health professionals who work the front line and are likely to see exploited children show up in their emergency rooms. The sessions aimed to enable providers to identify those in trouble and help them.

"Via Christi feels very strongly that this is part of their mission," said Kathy Gill-Hopple, director of forensic nursing services for the health system's Wichita hospitals.

Gill-Hopple oversees the Healthcare Haven program at Via Christi Hospital on Harry, which provides medical treatment to young people suffering from abuse, including forced sexual labor.

Girls often arrive with severe health problems and terrible stories of their travels.

"I have heard a 12-year-old girl tell about having hundreds of sex partners and being sold to seven different pimps from Atlanta to Wichita," Gill-Hopple said.

Wichita's response is turning into a model for fighting back.

"I think Wichita is ahead of Kansas City, especially in the way they've gotten all these agencies to work together," said FBI Special Agent Benjamin Kinsey, who works for the Innocence Lost Task Force in Kansas City.

That task force has helped find hundreds of children nationwide and helped send hundreds of pimps to prison.

Millions remain lost, however, because pimps travel their routes so frequently that the girls often don't stay in one place long enough to be located.

"We see a lot of Wichita girls in Kansas City," Kinsey said. "But what is Kansas City's problem today may be Dallas' problem tomorrow. That's where the girls will be."

Billion-dollar babies

Pimps from other states frequent amateur night at Wichita strip clubs, looking for recruits, Bauman said.

Men buy girls new clothes and jewelry and give them money to lure them into what they will call "the life" or "the game."

After "turning out" a girl or boy — selling them for sex —pimps use beatings, intimidation and torture to maintain compliance.

Many kids turn up dead.

Youth, on average, enter the sex trade between ages 12 and 14.

They have an average life expectancy of seven years, dying from drug overdoses, suicide and murder, Bauman said.

Most are runaways. Bauman said 90 percent of those he's interviewed had histories of sexual abuse.

"They are no different than victims of domestic violence or rape," Bauman said.

These children feed a billion-dollar industry, which is approaching illicit drug sales as the most profitable criminal enterprise.

"It's more lucrative than drugs, less risky and recyclable," Countryman-Roswurm said. "They can sell a bag of drugs one time. They sell a person over and over."

Friday's training aimed to teach health care workers how to identify victims of sex trafficking and find them help.

"We don't rescue them like lost kittens," Countryman-Roswurm said. "We have to finds ways to empower them with survivor skills."

Police would like to prosecute every pimp and stop johns from buying girls.

"But getting children the services they need is so much more important in the broad spectrum," said Wright, the detective, fighting back tears. "No matter where they came from, they're somebody's baby."

Reach Ron Sylvester at 316-268-6514 or rsylvester@wichitaeagle.com.

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