The day after Valentine’s Day in 1994, a Wichita woman named Karen Countryman shot herself to death at her home, leaving a suicide note for her 13-year-old daughter.
Her look-alike daughter, also named Karen Countryman, ran away from foster care the next year and spent two years eluding police and social workers trying to rescue her.
She saw sex traffickers abusing children on the streets. She made rescue her life’s work.
Now Wichita State University is establishing a Center for Combating Human Trafficking, with Karen Countryman-Roswurm, 32, as the executive director. The center will train police, prosecutors, medical providers, faith groups and others in how to combat trafficking. It will be an advocate for victims. It will try to reshape public policy on a national scale.
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By building the center entirely around Countryman-Roswurm’s expertise, WSU leaders think they can become not only a regional center to combat trafficking but eventually the strongest voice in the nation to fight the crime. The Kansas Board of Regents approved the center on Feb. 13. The start-up cost is estimated at $50,000 a year from the university, with the center also applying for grants.
“She’s already one of the leading experts on human trafficking in the nation,” WSU’s Keith Pickus said of Countryman-Roswurm. Pickus will step down as the university’s provost in July and serve as the center’s director of operations. “Not only does she have the theoretical and academic background, but her personal story is unique. No one in the country combines what she has.”
Countryman-Roswurm, who has a doctorate in psychology, said human trafficking earns billions annually for pimps and other criminals. It victimizes an estimated 100,000 children in the United States and possibly hundreds of children in Sedgwick County, she said.
“These people we’ve called prostitutes – many of them are children,” she said. “Most of them were sexually abused, including in their own homes, from the time they were small.”
In Topeka, state legislators are debating an anti-human-trafficking bill. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who wrote much of it, said it was inspired and shaped in part by Countryman-Roswurm. She came to him as early as 2007, he said, when he was the Republican majority leader in the Kansas Senate, asking that he help change state law regarding trafficking.
“Hers is a remarkable American story of a person who was dealt a difficult hand and turned it into an inspiration for anyone who’s seen it,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt said Senate Bill 61, if approved, will dramatically change how police, courts and social workers treat the victims of trafficking.
Schmidt was instrumental in creating the state’s first human trafficking law in 2007.
But where that law defines child sex workers as “prostitutes,” they will now be defined as victims, he said.
“So much of the conversation we’ve had about these victims for many years is just wrong,” Schmidt said.
“These are human beings,” Countryman-Roswurm said. “They are victims, they are survivors.”
She said a study she completed last year involving 258 child victims interviewed at the Wichita Children’s Home showed that 70 percent had been victims of physical violence, 68 percent had been sexually assaulted and 40 percent were forced, coerced or “frauded” into being exploited in sexual trafficking.
Most runaways stay homeless only a few days or weeks before they get into sex trafficking, go home or are arrested. As a teen, Karen Countryman’s experience was different. She stayed homeless two years, in 1995 and 1996.
She slept on the couches of strangers and friends, completed her GED – and after she saw human trafficking on Wichita’s streets, she became what Schmidt called a relentless advocate for human trafficking victims.
She ran away from the Wichita Children’s Home during her homeless years, resentful at how social workers such as Sarah Robinson, the director, curtailed her street freedom. She startled Robinson and other social workers by reappearing in 1996, in court, with a thick, detailed portfolio of her job and academic history. That made her the first teen to be court-emancipated from state care, Sedgwick County judges said at the time. She was 16.
In 1997, Robinson hired Countryman, while she was only 17, to be a Street Outreach worker, driving through Wichita neighborhoods, including in the most dangerous areas at night, finding and rescuing runaways. Robinson sent along an experienced Street Outreach worker to help and protect her. That was Will Ellis, the father of University of Kansas freshman basketball player Perry Ellis. Robinson hoped the elder Ellis, with his perpetual serious look and 6-foot-8 height, would intimidate anyone who might want to bother Countryman on the street. But Ellis always said Countryman was the intimidating half of their team.
Robinson said Countryman and Ellis saved several lives. Robinson now regrets that she sent a slightly-built teen girl into dangerous streets at night. “We’d not do that now.”
“But she has what our Street Outreach director, Risa Rehmert, calls the three-second rule,” Robinson said. “Risa said in three seconds, Karen could step out of the Street Outreach van and engage a runaway or anyone else so compellingly that they don’t turn and walk away. Now she does the same thing with people in Washington, D.C.”
As early as 1998, she walked right up to gang members at night, befriending them, petting their pit bulls, asking their help in finding troubled teens. She got in the faces of belligerent teens or talked them into letting her help them. She saw how police treated trafficking victims.
From WSU, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in social work in 2005, a master’s degree in 2006 (4.0 grade-point average) and a doctorate last year. Countryman-Roswurm now frequently flies across the country to teach, including as the keynote speaker, at national conventions of police, prosecutors, social workers and federal investigators. She has spoken to such groups in Washington, D.C.; New Orleans; Indianapolis; and other cities.
Coming face to face
Marc Bennett, the Sedgwick County district attorney, said Senate Bill 61 was written mostly by Schmidt. But Bennett said he wrote the first draft, inspired in part by conversations organized in 2006 by Countryman-Roswurm. She had been fuming for years that the justice system wrongly treated child trafficking victims. In 2006, she formed a roundtable group that put police, prosecutors and social workers face to face with each other.
Month after month, in sometimes fiery talks drawn from her street rescues, she challenged them to change their language, their thinking, their policies and state law. Bennett, an assistant district attorney then, attended some of those meetings.
“She opened everybody’s eyes,” Bennett said.
‘Nobody did anything’
What got her started was a beating that took place in her car while she sat in the driver’s seat dialing 911.
“I was tracking homeless and runaway youth to see how they were progressing into adulthood, and one of the young ladies participating in the study was living on North Broadway,” she said.
This was 1998, she said. She was 18. The young woman she was picking up was 16 or 17.
“She was living in an apartment complex on North Broadway. Next thing I know, she’s arguing with her boyfriend, who was acting as her pimp.
“She started running toward my car. And time kind of stood still. I attempted to reach into my back seat to get my cellphone out of my purse, and … she had opened up my car door. She was in my car, five months’ pregnant, (her) top ripped off. Her pimp-boyfriend was on top of her, hitting, biting, scratching, cursing.
“A law enforcement officer came. There were cars that had slowed down or stopped. … There were people crowding into the parking lot. Nobody did anything. This police officer came, got the perpetrator, put him in his car.
“This young lady was absolutely seen as a prostitute. … They did not view this as a domestic violence situation.
“And so this young lady was told …‘this guy is going to be released within 24 hours if you don’t come to the courthouse. And you need to file a restraining order. … You need to testify in court.’
“(She) said, ‘Karen, I can’t do that.’
“I said, ‘Why not? You need to get out of this situation.’ ”
The young woman said she feared she’d be killed if she testified.
She said Countryman did not understand her life.
“ ‘My Dad had sex with me,’ ” Countryman-Roswurm recalled her saying. “ ‘My Dad let my brothers have sex with me. My Dad let my uncles have sex with me. He invited all his friends to have sex with me so that he could get his drugs, so that he could get his alcohol. So that he could get his cigarettes. And this is the most control I’ve ever had.’
“She had been treated as a commodity from the day she was born. She had been stolen. So it wasn’t a stretch that she could be sold.”
Not really a choice
Lt. Jeff Weible, who commands Sedgwick County’s Exploited and Missing Child Unit, said police work on trafficking and victim rescue has improved in recent years. Some, but not all, of those improvements came because of Countryman-Roswurm, he said.
Human trafficking cases are harder to investigate than nearly any other crime, Weible and Bennett said.
Nearly all the child victims, most of them girls, were sexually abused from the time they were babies or pre-schoolers, they said.
“They think this life they are in, as bad as it is, is not nearly as bad as what they had before,” Bennett said.
Weible said his unit has investigated 125 human trafficking situations since 2006.
But he said, “We have a lot of activity we don’t know about, and the perpetrators are getting more sophisticated. They are advertising online in various places, for example.”
Bennett said the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office has brought charges in about 25 sex-trafficking cases in the past seven years.
“But of those 25 cases, which involved 25 separate children, I know that every one of those 25 children ran away from protective custody at least once, some of them multiple times,” Bennett said.
They try to avoid testifying even though they live in dangerous and demeaning situations, he said.
“Right now we have a victim who we put in placement, with relatives out of state, and she’s on the run again, in the wind,” Weible said.
Everything happening now is long overdue, Countryman-Roswurm said.
“I think it’s so easy for the general public to look at these circumstances that aren’t necessarily abduction and kidnapping cases and say, ‘Well, why are you in this situation, why don’t you leave?’ It’s because, what did I see on the streets? What did I see in street outreach? People are doing what they think they need to do to survive. They are acting out of hopelessness. Desperation. They are utterly alone. Choice? There never really is one.”