Karen Countryman-Roswurm, a former teen runaway, is now the executive director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University.
Q: What years were you a runaway?
A: 1995. 1996.
Q: What did you see as a runaway?
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A: I don’t even know if I can go there anymore. I’m so far from that now. In human trafficking, I saw the same things I later saw as a Street Outreach worker. I saw people acting out of their hopelessness. I saw people acting out of their desperation. I saw people making decisions when they had no options. And so what is choice, when you have no options?
Q: Why is it hard for police to rescue these young women from sex trafficking?
A: If you look at cultlike behavior, if you look at domestic violence situations, there is a trauma bond when there is a traumatic relationship, such as when there is a trafficker and their victim. And so even when we do a rescue, this population is difficult to work with. They are not standing on street corners screaming, “Rescue me, rescue me.” Most of the time when there is a rescue, this person is going to spit in your face and say, “Screw you, I don’t want your damned help.”
Q: How did you evolve?
A: The journey’s been pretty wild. … It makes me proud to know that I’ve been a forerunner of this … with so many great colleagues. It makes me proud to be a part of this state. We have absolutely come so far.
(In 1998) I and some of the Wichita Children’s Home staff started investigating the city’s response to human trafficking. We were all still calling it “teen prostitution.” And so we went to places. Exploited and Missing Child Unit. WASAC (Wichita Area Sexual Abuse Center). Overall, the general response we received was, “This doesn’t happen here. This is not a problem here.”
Q: How will the new bill change anything?
A: Senate Bill 61 increases penalties for the perpetrators involved in human trafficking, and it creates a victims’ assistance fund. There eventually will be a pool of money to provide training, which would then assist in prevention efforts, as well as direct services including shelter care and identification and assessment of human trafficking survivors.
Q: What is it going to do?
A. What they are doing is taking out the terminology of “prostitute” and “prostitution.” From a human rights perspective, it is not perfect. It is a major step in the right direction.
A. Because when you use this term “prostitution,” it connotes that that person is a criminal, that person had a choice. And language is so powerful.
Q: How many kids are there like this?
A. The (National) Runaway Switchboard says that one in three youth will be lured into sexual exploitation and human trafficking within the first 48 hours of leaving home. So look at the homeless and runaway youth numbers. Figure out a third of that.
Q: That’s roughly 1,200 to 1,300 runaways a year in Sedgwick County, so roughly a third of those?
Q: How many sex trafficked children nationally?
A. The estimate is that there’s 12 million enslaved in human trafficking in the world. … Eighty percent of the victims are women; 50 percent are children. There is about $32 billion generated in trafficking human beings annually. Between 14,500 to 17,500 trafficked into the U.S. annually. And then 100,000 American children are victims of commercial sexual exploitation annually.
Q: What’s going to happen with the new WSU Center Combatting Human Trafficking?
A: We already do training and education, but we want to beef that up. It’s easier to train people on these issues if we are training them early in their careers. It sets the stage for dealing with this issue across disciplines.
Q: Who’s going to be trained there?
Q: What do people need to think about, what do people need to do?
A: A lot of times, when people see an issue such as this, they respond out of fear, and so we honestly create more harm.
By simply jumping in my van tonight and thinking that I’m going to be a vigilante Outreach worker, and I don’t know the culture of trafficking – I could put that girl at risk. Her perpetrator is probably down the block watching, and so if I make eye contact, she’s gonna have the tar beat out of her tonight.
Q: What do parents need to do?
A: Be a part of your kid’s life. Know what your kid is doing and be a part of what your kid is doing.
Those upper-middle-class kids who were forced or coerced into human trafficking, their parents didn’t know what was going on in their lives.
I don’t think we need to live our lives afraid of media. I think Internet use, television, all of these things can be resources to us if used appropriately. But as a parent, if you have a young person and they are on the Internet and they are a part of a social media site, then you better train yourself how to use that social media site. That’s part of your responsibility as a parent.
It’s important to talk to your kids and do things with your kids. And keep ’em busy.