Runaway foster kids raise sex-trafficking fears in Kansas

Here’s how human trafficking affects Kansas

Human trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world. Kansas has been named an "originating state" for human trafficking.
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Human trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world. Kansas has been named an "originating state" for human trafficking.

She was 13, living in a Kansas group home, when an older girl convinced her to run away.

That led to her being sold for sex for the first time.

She was later put in juvenile detention. Then, after spending time in foster care, she was a victim of sex trafficking again at age 15.

“Every time I did something wrong, they just locked me up with the same people who were doing the same stuff I was doing or worse,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “While I was in foster care and in the system I felt like nothing was ever consistent. I never had a consistent person in my life.”

The pipeline from foster care to human trafficking is well known, said Karen Countryman-Roswurm, executive director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University.

Foster children are at a greater risk of human trafficking because they have gone through traumas such as abuse, and experts like Countryman-Roswurm say the system also exacerbates a disconnect between children and a community, putting them further in jeopardy.

That’s of particular concern when there were 71 foster care children in Kansas who have run away and another three who are missing in early February, something Countryman-Roswurm said should cause “alarm bells.”

The numbers

When it first came to light that dozens of foster children were missing in Kansas, Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, said she was worried because Kansas is known to be a crossroads for human trafficking.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that out of nearly 25,000 reports of runaways it received in 2017, one in seven was likely a victim of child sex trafficking.

Of those, 88 percent were in the care of social services when they went missing.

Gina Meier-Hummel, who was appointed secretary of the Kansas Department of Children and Families in November, said the department is putting an emphasis on finding the state’s missing youth and making sure they have adequate treatment.

Between Nov. 20, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2017, 99 missing foster children were found, according to the department. The department has previously said that the number of missing foster children was in line with the national average.

“Those who are choosing to run away and leave their placement and are out, potentially in bad situations, they certainly are vulnerable for human trafficking, and we are very definitely aware of that,” Meier-Hummel said.

The department also has a rapid response team that responds when a child is identified as a possible victim of trafficking.

Since 2014, the Department of Children and Families has done 285 assessments on possible victims of trafficking, Meier-Hummel said.

“It is a real issue for Kansas kids, unfortunately,” she said.

Jennifer Montgomery, director of human trafficking education and outreach for the Kansas Attorney General’s Office, said in an email that concrete data about human trafficking “is elusive” due to the underground nature of the crime.

In 2017, grant recipients from the attorney general’s office across Kansas reported serving 475 victims of both sex and labor trafficking, she said.

Children at risk

Countryman-Roswurm conducted one of the largest studies on human trafficking when she interviewed 258 young people to find out what put them at risk for trafficking. Risk factors included physical and sexual abuse as well as use of drugs and alcohol.

Another risk factor was mentioned by nearly every youth: The feeling of being disconnected and disengaged.

That feeling of disconnect can happen with children who remain with their families, but even more so with children who are moved around through systems of care, Countryman-Roswurm said.

Sometimes children run away from foster care to return to their families. Typically, 60 percent to 78 percent of traffickers are family members, whether parents or a spouse of the victim, Countryman-Roswurm said.

The feeling of disconnect can also lead to children being connected with traffickers they aren’t related to.

“Our systems of care have taught these young people to share a lot of very personal information with people they’re not connected to,” she said. “It’s not a far stretch to think about how these kids are particularly vulnerable to get connected with people they don’t know.”

An average of 85 foster children in Kansas have been classified as “runaway” each month since July, according to DCF records.

The Kansas legislature passed a bill in 2016 that addressed federal requirements to prevent trafficking.

The law includes a requirement that missing foster children be reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and law enforcement.

A solution

Countryman-Roswurm says there’s more the community can do to stop children from being trafficked. That can include taking a meal to a single mother, babysitting for struggling parents and offering support to foster parents.

The best treatments in the world won’t matter unless children are connected to people in real, loving relationships, she said.

“Anything we can do to help kids remain in their homes will automatically decrease their risk of being picked up by a trafficker,” she said. “By supporting parents, by supporting struggling families, whether that’s the single mom or the foster or adoptive home, we are helping relieve stress from parents and thus helping the relationship of the child to their parents or their caregiver.”

Eventually, the woman who was first trafficked at age 13 found herself arrested and facing trafficking charges.

It’s not uncommon for people who’ve been trafficked to face such charges, particularly if a trafficker uses victims to recruit others, Countryman-Roswurm says.

Now, the woman works to help others who have survived sex trafficking. She has a message for people who want to help keep foster kids safe:

“Being in foster care, I needed that one consistent person,” she said. “Be that unconditional person for the kids and walk alongside them the whole way, even when they mess up.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess

Report a problem

If you have a report of abuse or exploitation, the Kansas Protection Report Center for children’s safety can be reached at 1-800-922-5330.

For reports of trafficking, the national Human Trafficking Hotline is available at 1-888-373-7888.