Politics & Government

Kansas on brink of enacting human trafficking law inspired by Wichita programs

Kansas is poised to crack down on human trafficking, create new programs to better train law enforcement officials and help children and others coerced into the sex trade.

The proposed law, which drew heavily on evolving practices in Wichita, creates a new category of crime called commercial sexual exploitation of a child. That could lead to 25-year minimum sentences for those convicted of luring kids younger than 14 into the sex trade or those who accommodate the trafficking. It also sets up treatment and education programs for victims.

“This is bigger than human trafficking – this is about humanitarianism, dignity and social justice,” said Karen Countryman-Roswurm, a Wichita State University assistant professor and a national authority on human trafficking. The bill’s authors said she had a hand in shaping it. “I’m proud of our state for this decision.”

The proposal, which is headed to Gov. Sam Brownback’s desk, seeks to de-stigmatize those who get coerced into the sex trade. It channels fines paid by people convicted of human trafficking and related sex crimes to a fund to help the women, children and men who have been exploited by them.

“They’re not prostitutes; they’re victims who were forced into prostitution,” said Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, as he explained the proposed law to House lawmakers on Friday.

Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt introduced the bill and gave it a powerful endorsement at the outset of the legislative session.

Brownback said the proposal is a step to end “modern-day slavery,” and Schmidt said it will help break the cycle of sexual exploitation, a crime that occurs around the globe in cities large and small.

The bill proved to be one of the most widely endorsed pieces of legislation in an otherwise contentious session clouded by conservative pushes for tax and budget cuts.

The Senate passed it 40-0 and the House approved it 120-0, with five members absent. Dozens of law enforcement groups, advocates for children, advocates for sex crime survivors and lawyers’ groups strongly endorsed the proposal. No one testified against it.

Roots in Wichita

Although its final passage was up to a political process in Topeka, the proposal has deep roots in Wichita – years of effort by police, social workers, prosecutors and advocates who have worked with many survivors of traumatic sex crimes and prostitution.

Countryman-Roswurm, who was a Wichita runaway 16 years ago, may know the issue better than anyone.

She eventually became a street outreach worker at the Wichita Children’s Home in 1998, rescuing runaways.

She is now a 32-year-old assistant professor at Wichita State University and executive director of the new WSU Center for Combating Human Trafficking.

In 2006, angered about the cold official treatment of exploitation victims she had seen on Wichita’s streets, she formed a roundtable group that put police officers in a room with prosecutors, social workers and others.

She told them the laws needed to change, along with how child victims were treated. Everyone needed to be taught about the true nature of this crime and how these children were forced, traumatized or “frauded” into the business of performing sex acts for money, she said.

“Work like this is exactly what we hope to do more of with the center … bridging the gap between research, practice and policy in order to decrease the risk of Kansas kids,” Countryman-Roswurm said Friday.

Survivors need holistic services from the moment they’re identified by police to when they meet social workers, lawyers and advocates, she said.

“So many of the women (we surveyed) talked about how the men in their lives, whether it was mom’s boyfriend or their older brothers, were demeaning to women, pornography was accepted,” she said. “One young woman, her mother’s boyfriend would literally sit at the kitchen table while they were eating dinner and look at porn on the computer and make nasty comments to her mom. You see the making of a young person who is at risk for human trafficking. You see her start to be sketched out.”

The instability and influences leave young women without a sense of what healthy relationships involving trust and respect look like.

“There is nothing of value to them except their sexuality. It becomes this mixture for the perfect explosion,” she said. “Mix the ingredients, and it’s harmful. Add things like low socio-economic status. Add physical violence. Sexual violence.”

But more factors can contribute.

“Human trafficking can and does happen to people from all walks of life, regardless of race, socio-economic status, faith – it doesn’t matter,” she said. “But that being said, when your life is incubated in trauma, and you’re living out of this trauma, and you have these vulnerabilities and risk factors, and you are marginalized, then absolutely the perpetrators in human trafficking, the pimps, the recruiters target those vulnerable people. And sometimes it’s forced. Sometimes it’s coerced, sometimes it happens through fraud.”

Treating the victims

Many credit Countryman-Roswurm’s work with provoking change. Among them is Marc Bennett, who prosecuted sex crimes against children before becoming Sedgwick County district attorney.

The criminal justice system considered children involved in sex trafficking to be prostitutes, he said.

But the forthcoming law will change that by treating them as what Bennett said they are – traumatized child victims who were often beaten or coerced into their line of work.

Besides making penalties tougher on sex traffickers, the law will try to ensure that victims will be treated more sensibly and sensitively, with far more dignity, Bennett said.

The law will establish a sex trafficking task force, set up by the Department for Children and Families. Members will immediately travel to see any child victims believed to be involved in sex trafficking. They will be given a secure place to stay that is not a “lock-up,” Bennett said.

One of the big mistakes until now, Bennett said, is that when children were brought in, they were taken to lock-ups because “it was believed there was not another place to take them.”

“That may seem like a horrible thing to do with a crime victim,” Bennett said. “But what’s your choice at that time – foster care? These kids would run away from foster care 30 minutes after they are placed in it. They do that because nearly all of them came out of abusive situations.

“The victimization of these children is so profound it’s hard to describe. But … nobody chooses this life.”

Schmidt said the effort broadens the discussion of not just penalties for human trafficking but training, outreach and victim support.

“The overarching message for Kansas is that we are talking about our kids and crimes that happen right here,” he said. “Human trafficking occurs internationally, but some of it is right here.”

Traffickers and pimps make money off the misery of others, who are often children who don’t have the security, money, food and shelter that pimps offer.

“The victim does not look on herself as a victim,” he said. “We often have victims who are difficult to deal with, don’t want help. If we can show them other ways to meet those needs, if we can show them a way out, they will discover help is available.”