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Wichita Children’s Home named state shelter for human-trafficking victims

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at 8:35 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, March 3, 2014, at 7:40 a.m.

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The state of Kansas has designated the Wichita Children’s Home as a state shelter for human-trafficking victims, just as police say that the number of 2013 human-trafficking cases in Sedgwick County nearly tripled over last year.

Police made 29 cases in 2013 compared to 10 in 2012, said Lt. Jeff Weible, commander of the Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit. Twenty-nine victims were identified last year, compared to 11 in 2012.

Under a new anti-human-trafficking law that went into effect Jan. 1, the state needed to designate a state shelter because, until now, the main alternative available to law enforcement was to send trafficking victims to juvenile jails, said Karen Countryman-Roswurm, a national expert on human trafficking.

Anna Pilato, deputy secretary for the Kansas Department of Children and Families, said this does not mean that the Children’s Home is the only place trafficking victims might be sent. Depending on each case, Pilato said, some children might be sent there, or to foster care, or possibly back to their families if that is deemed best.

The number of Sedgwick County cases and victims is significant, Countryman-Roswurm said. Trafficking cases are more difficult to work than most crimes, she said, because of how hard it is to persuade child victims to testify against their abusers.

She also said that the Children’s Home is underfunded for its new responsibility.

“I hope people in our community step up,” she said. “The Children’s Home has taken the brunt of all the work ever done to help these children, starting many years ago, long before it became cool to donate to human-trafficking causes. …

“As a community, we need to make sure this new care we are offering these children will be long-term and sustainable. If not, it will be funded for a couple of years and then go away, and what will we have accomplished?”

Victims, not criminals

The Wichita Children’s Home has offered the only emergency, temporary residential shelter for children in need in Sedgwick County since the 19th century. Police finding children in need of care lodge them there temporarily. The Home’s Street Outreach program has for years cruised city streets to find and help runaways.

Countryman-Roswurm, founder and director of Wichita State University’s new Center for Combating Human Trafficking, wrote the grant proposal that got the Children’s Home designated as the state shelter.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett have said that Countryman-Roswurm, a former Wichita runaway, was the catalyst for persuading the state to pass a law last year redefining Kansas child sex workers as victims needing aid and shelter rather than as “prostitutes” deserving arrests and jail terms.

Under the terms of the grant proposal, the Children’s Home will receive $120,850 a year in state money to provide four beds to take in human trafficking victims from all over the state, Countryman-Roswurm said. Those children will be offered the shelter for 72 hours of assessment and aid.

There were so few options before that law enforcement usually placed human-trafficking victims in juvenile jails when police found them during arrests for prostitution crimes.

“There’s been cases where, to keep the child safe, we actually had to charge them with a crime – which, we all agree, they are truly a victim of a crime,” said Weible, with the Exploited and Missing Child Unit.

“There was no place to keep them safe from the people that would exploit them or to keep them safe from running.”

All that often accomplished, Countryman-Roswurm said, was to encourage those children to rely more on pimps than the authorities.

“I think all experts agree that placing them in a juvenile detention facility isn’t the most conducive environment for the victim,” Weible said.

Most of the children in these cases, as Countryman-Roswurm and Weible have said publicly before, are children who were targeted. The pimps, they say, use them to make money, and sometimes move them across state lines for prostitution work elsewhere.

The law enforcement officers and social workers who work for Weible have said they work every day to identify and help children leave the criminals holding them, but that the children are often beaten, intimidated, and sometimes drugged. Many have known no other life.

Weible has said that in recent years, pimps have become more sophisticated in running prostitution enterprises, using social media and technology to advertise.

The near-tripling of cases and victims in one year doesn’t mean trafficking has increased dramatically, Weible said. It’s just being detected more often than it used to be.

He attributes that to awareness and training.

“By raising awareness of law enforcement, we’ve been able to teach people to look for warning signs,” Weible said.

The Children’s Home designation is not yet a victory for the victims, Countryman-Roswurm said.

“Now that we got this going, let’s commit to growing it,” she said.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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