A group of agencies that fight sex trafficking of child victims in Wichita has been given a three-year, $300,000 federal grant to step up its efforts and to provide an array of counseling, advocacy, medical and other services.
Karen Countryman-Roswurm, an expert on runaways and homeless victims of exploitation, said the grant will help combat a problem she has warned the Wichita community about for years.
A recent study, she said, involved 258 young people interviewed at the Wichita Children’s Home, which takes in runaways and other children in need. Of those children, 70 percent had been victims of physical violence, 68 had been sexually assaulted, and 40 percent were forced, coerced or “frauded” into being exploited in sexual trafficking. One group especially vulnerable to being harmed in this way, she said, are runaways.
Risa Rehmert, who rescues runaway and homeless children by running the Street Outreach program at the Children’s Home, said 203 children and teens in Sedgwick County were picked up off the streets three years ago, 183 two years ago, and 224 last year. Of those picked up last year, 133 identified themselves as homeless, she said.
Sex traffickers target many of these children, and use their homelessness, hunger and desperation about survival as the means to turn them to financial advantage, Countryman-Roswurm said. They become “boyfriends” to the children but in fact become pimps exploiting them for money, she said.
“A lot of the young people we work with identify the perpetrators as their boyfriends,” Countryman-Roswurm said. “But in fact they’ve often been the victims of multiple forms of sexual assault in the ‘grooming and seasoning’ process of sex trafficking and exploitation.”
The federal grant came from the Office on Violence Against Women, a Department of Justice entity.
It will go to a coalition of local agencies including the Children’s Home, Catholic Charities Harbor House and the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center. As many as 600 youths in Wichita on any given night are on the streets and vulnerable to this kind of violence, said Cynthia Colbert, director of Catholic Charities.
“We are going to help a lot of kiddoes who need some help,” said Sarah Robinson, director of the Children’s Home.
The grant will be used to help 13 to 22 year olds of both genders, most of whom are victims of sexual assault, stalking, trafficking and other problems, Robison said. Many of them are either runaways or “throw-away kids,” who were forced out of their homes, she said.
Local agencies and police over the past decade, with the Street Outreach program often leading the way, have become increasingly aware that local prostitution involves a number of children being exploited for sex. Countryman-Roswurm began studying the problem as a teenager when she began working for Street Outreach, looking for and offering help to runaways she found in Sedgwick County.
She and Rehmert and other agencies, including some investigators specializing in runaways at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit, often closely coordinate their efforts. There are already programs, other government grants and various kinds of United Way support in place to provide help to children and young people, Robinson said. But the new federal grant will strengthen and expand the effort, she said.