Timothy Henderson, the presiding judge of juvenile courts in Sedgwick County, told a story Monday to show how far we’ve come in taking better care of child sex-trafficking victims.
He was speaking to an audience gathered at Wichita State University for a public forum on sex trafficking.
Several years ago, he said, the police had rolled up on him one day while he was shopping at Lowe’s with his wife for vegetables and flowers for their garden. They told him they had a young girl in custody who they believed was the victim of sex trafficking by pimps, and they needed him to decide as a judge what to do with her until the case could be processed.
At that time, there were no shelters for trafficking victims.
“I was struck with what my options were at the time,” Henderson said. “I have two choices: put her in the Wichita Children’s Home, where she’d almost certainly run away, or lock up this victim of this most heinous crime.
“I chose to lock her up.”
There were no other good options, he said.
“It bothers me still today.”
When he explained the generalities of the case to his wife minutes later that day, “She said, ‘Well, that’s just stupid,’ ” Henderson recalled.
Kansas now has a way to avoid doing something stupid like that, Henderson and other authorities said at the forum on Monday. A new law, written mostly by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, went into effect Jan. 1 that treats victims of sex trafficking as victims in need of care rather than prostitutes committing a crime.
It also increase the penalties for sex trafficking to 25 years to life – the same as for first-degree murder.
On Monday, Henderson sat on a stage with Schmidt and two other people instrumental in creating the law: Karen Countryman-Roswurm of WSU and Marc Bennett, the Sedgwick County district attorney.
The roundtable discussion before a public audience was organized by Countryman-Roswurm, director of WSU’s Center to Combat Human Trafficking, as a way to bring home how more needs to be done to build on the new law.
She coaxed the story out of Henderson, asking why he became involved in helping with the law. She told her own story and guided Bennett and Schmidt to tell theirs.
Bennett told what it was like to spend 13 years prosecuting people for sex crimes against children and how this had included holding the hand of a 4-year-old girl while leading her to a witness stand one day to testify against her abusers. He told what it was like to come to grips with how there are sex traffickers in this city, including those he has prosecuted, and how he learned what they do to their victims.
“I hesitate to say this, but there are worse things you can do to someone other than take their life,” he said. “I used to try homicide cases … but the hardest thing I’ve ever done is look in the eyes of someone who survived.”
Schmidt told how, as a Kansas legislator, he rewrote the state’s sex-trafficking laws and how his thoughts at the time included his own children, born in 2003 and 2005.
At Countryman-Roswurm’s urging in recent years, he rewrote the law to ensure that child victims would no longer be classified as prostitutes but as the victims they are. Along with changes in the law, Schmidt said, there has been a change in thinking among authorities, who used to say, he said, that prostitution was “a victimless crime.” Everyone now knows better, he said.
Because he prosecuted murder cases in the years before he began prosecuting sex crimes, Bennett could describe how sex crime victims were treated with what now seems to him to be disrespect. The families of murder victims, he said, were usually treated in the legal system with dignity and respect even by the accused murderers.
But children who had been forced into sex crimes were treated with “indifference and disdain,” he said.
Countryman-Roswurm retold the story of the case that turned her into a zealous combatant against trafficking: A child she was working with as a social worker was beaten up by a pimp in Countryman-Roswurm’s car one day on North Broadway. When the police showed up, they told the girl she would have to testify against the man. The girl refused.
No one should regard the new law as a victory, Schmidt said. So far, he said, the state has only four beds at the Wichita Children’s Home designated to take care of sex-trafficking victims in the entire state.
Henderson spoke up: “I could fill those four beds by 7 o’clock tonight.”
He looked at his watch. “And it is 6:55 right now.”