The bags are piled in Jennifer White’s office, waiting for her or a group of volunteers to fill them.
The “fresh start” bags will be stuffed with new clothes, gift certificates for food and personal care items for victims of human trafficking or abuse.
“As fast as we make them, they use them,” said White, founder of ICT S.O.S., a grassroots organization that combats trafficking and abuse.
The organization has put together nearly 250 of the bags so far in 2015 – more than three times the total for all of last year. Part of that disparity, White said, is because 2014 was the first year it provided the bags to victims of human trafficking or other kinds of abuse, and the group didn’t start until spring.
Yet, even taking that history into account, “It’s been a huge jump from last year to this year,” White said.
The number of sex-trafficking cases reported in Wichita has increased from 29 in 2014 to 44 so far this year – a jump of more than 50 percent.
The bags go to half a dozen local agencies that deal with victims of abuse and human trafficking: Via Christi Hospital St. Francis, the Exploited and Missing Child Unit, the Child Advocacy Center, the Wichita Children’s Home, the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center and Youthville.
“I think it speaks to the need – and not just trafficking, but abuse, neglect and sexual abuse,” White said of the growing demand for the bags. “There’s a huge need.”
Strange as it may sound, White sees the increased number of cases as good news.
“I don’t necessarily think that we’ve had more activity but that we’re getting better at identifying it, which means more victims are getting help,” she said.
Hospital employees at Via Christi Health and Wichita police officers have received training to better recognize potential victims of human trafficking. That recognition is paying off, White said.
The training is helping officers recognize “subtle cues or clues,” Capt. Jeff Weible said.
“Many times, you have a victim that doesn’t identify themselves as a victim,” he said. What they’ve become involved in, “they don’t think that’s a problem.”
It’s often a result of the “grooming” of victims by predators, Weible and White said.
Via Christi Health employees are taught to watch for a variety of indicators or red flags that suggest a patient may be involved in trafficking.
Via Christi spokeswoman Roz Hutchinson said hospital employees have identified 24 trafficking victims so far this year – 18 of them adults. While alerting law enforcement is mandatory for victims who are minors, it is not required for every adult.
Street abductions uncommon
Many people think of human trafficking as unsuspecting teens snatched from sidewalks or street corners. As an example, White cited two girls, ages 15 and 16, who accepted a ride early this month from a stranger who picked them up near 21st and Hydraulic.
Once they were in the vehicle, he pulled a gun and took them to a house on Piatt, where police say they were raped repeatedly over several hours before one of the girls escaped early in the morning two days later and alerted a neighbor.
Roderick Martin, 54, has been charged with four counts of kidnapping, two counts of aggravated criminal sodomy, two counts of aggravated human trafficking, two counts of commercial sexual exploitation of a child and one count each of rape, aggravated indecent liberties with a child and possession of a certain stimulant. He is being held on $150,000 bond.
Jordan Lewis, 38, faces four counts of aggravated criminal sodomy, two counts of kidnapping, two counts of aggravated human trafficking, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of rape and one count of aggravated indecent solicitation of a child. He is also being held on $150,000 bond.
The preliminary hearings for both Martin and Lewis were scheduled to be held Tuesday but were postponed until sometime next month.
“That’s not the norm, that’s the exception,” White said of the street abductions of the two teens. “The norm is much more the grooming process, and that can happen to anybody.”
Internet provides access
Wichita tends to be more of “an originating city,” White said, meaning the girls are picked up here and taken elsewhere.
The Exploited and Missing Child Unit “has recovered kids from all over the country that came from here,” she said.
Trafficking starts in online chat rooms or on Smartphone apps and occurs after predators have established relationships with unsuspecting targets.
“These people have so much more access to our kids than they used to,” White said.
“The Internet is a beautiful thing. It allows us to do some really great work, but it also allows some really awful things to happen, unfortunately.”
White said she has been moved and impressed by the community’s outpouring of support in providing supplies for the fresh start kits. For her birthday party, a 9-year-old girl asked friends to bring items for the kit and made a game out of putting the kits together.
“I think a lot of people understand the rescue and restoration side of things,” White said. “That’s very needed.”
Prevention becomes focus
Yet agencies that deal with human trafficking are increasingly focusing on prevention education. ICT S.O.S, in partnership with Fair Girls – a Washington D.C.-based anti-human-trafficking organization – has begun offering the “Tell Your Friends” curriculum for students in middle and high schools in Wichita and the surrounding area.
White used a car wreck analogy to describe her agency’s increasing emphasis on prevention. If your child were in a car accident, she said, you would want the best emergency responders, the best emergency room doctors and nurses, the best physicians.
“If you could prevent the accident to begin with, wouldn’t you do that every time?” she asked. “You don’t see that Cinderella story of being rescued and restored if they weren’t victimized to begin with.”
That’s why increasing numbers of trafficking cases won’t always be considered good news, White said.
“I’d love to see those numbers level off and begin to fall, because it means we’re doing a good job of prevention,” she said.
Potential indications of a human trafficking victim
Via Christi Health has developed an assessment protocol for clinicians to identify victims of human trafficking. Some of those indicators are:
▪ Signs of visible trauma
▪ Multiple sexually transmitted infections
▪ Malnutrition or dehydration
▪ Multiple pregnancies or abortions
▪ Inconsistent or scripted personal history
▪ Unable to give address
▪ Doesn’t know current city
▪ Unusually high number of sexual partners
▪ Carrying a large amount of cash
▪ Patient frequently receives texts or phone calls during exam
▪ Accompanied by controlling person who doesn’t allow patient to answer questions
▪ Patient exhibits fear, nervousness and/or avoids eye contact
To access Via Christi Health’s training on human trafficking, go to https://www.viachristi.org/about-via-christi/mission/human-trafficking-initiative.