Politics & Government

Dozens of possible child trafficking victims have been jailed in Kansas

Kansas Department for Children and Families data shows that some children who receive human trafficking assessments are in juvenile detention.
Kansas Department for Children and Families data shows that some children who receive human trafficking assessments are in juvenile detention. jshorman@wichitaeagle.com

Dozens of possible child trafficking victims have been jailed in Kansas juvenile detention centers over the past few years.

One in five possible child victims assessed by rapid response teams from 2014 to 2018 were in juvenile detention, according to Kansas Department for Children and Families data obtained by The Eagle. In eastern Kansas, juvenile detention was the most frequent housing option for possible trafficking victims.

Data and interviews show a system that sometimes detains victims despite universal agreement that detention can be detrimental. The practice can further traumatize victims, lead to future criminal behavior and add to the risk that victims will be re-trafficked, advocates say.

"It is extremely difficult to heal from your trafficking experience when you are criminalized and detained," one person who had been trafficked wrote in a statement to The Eagle. She provided the statement about her experience on the condition that her name not be used.

DCF and the agencies that evaluate trafficking victims say detaining a child is never the best option. The agencies — KVC and Saint Francis Community Services — say they never recommend placing a child in detention.

“Certainly, (detention) wouldn’t be the preferred placement ever for a victim, so my guess is there’s something else to the rest of the story,” DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said in an interview.

Trafficking victims can be placed in juvenile detention for a number of reasons. Police may suspect the child of committing a major offense, or they may be in detention because of a court order . The DCF data doesn’t say why some children were in detention.

Advocates are adamant that whatever the reason for detention, it harms child victims.

Detention is “very clearly not for children in need of care, not for victims of human trafficking,” said Mark Masterson, a former long-time director of Sedgwick County’s Division of Corrections.

Why kids may be in detention

In Kansas, when police come across children they believe may be trafficking victims, they’re required to contact DCF for an assessment. Assessments are also sometimes ordered by a court.

The assessments are conducted by rapid response teams run by KVC and Saint Francis. KVC operates in eastern Kansas and the children it evaluates as potential trafficking victims are more likely to be in juvenile detention than those assessed by Saint Francis, which oversees central and western Kansas.

Police often try to take children to what is called a staff secure facility, said Ed Klumpp, a lobbyist for several Kansas law enforcement associations and a retired Topeka police chief.

Kansas has only one such facility, the Wichita Children’s Home. In it, victims are housed in a home-like setting and watched around the clock by staff members.

Police still may take a child believed to be a trafficking victim to detention in some cases.

“They will not be locked up in a juvenile detention facility,” Klumpp said, describing a typical case. “Now, if they’ve committed a crime, in addition to being a victim, and I’m talking serious crime here — not necessarily a prostitution crime or anything like that.”

“For example, if they’ve committed an aggravated assault or a robbery or something like that, then yeah, we’re going to deal with that offender aspect of it,” he said.

Klumpp said police will consider whether any criminal act committed by the victim was caused by intimidation related to their trafficking.

Court orders sometimes mandate that a child go to detention. Children who have violated a court order because they ran away may be sent to detention. That practice will be prohibited beginning in 2019 under juvenile justice reform passed by the Legislature in 2016.

“In theory, you won’t see them in detention anymore because of SB 367," said Johnson County Judge Thomas Foster, who handles juvenile cases.

The DCF data shows that statewide, about 20 percent of children — 35 percent in eastern Kansas — assessed by the rapid response teams were in juvenile detention between 2014 and 2018. That's 68 children out of 342 who were assessed.

Sources for this story were in widespread agreement that detention is never the best place for a child trafficking victim. Some said detention effectively criminalizes victims — sending them the message that they are at fault for their trafficking.

“If you look at the history of detainment, correction, jail, incarceration — not one time in history has it ever been said that incarceration was created to protect somebody from themselves,” said Karen Countryman-Roswurm, executive director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University.

“It was created to protect society from somebody who was harmful. That’s the purpose of incarceration.”

Requiring human trafficking victims to spend time in detention facilities for any length of time increases the likelihood they will move in the direction of delinquent behavior, Delores Craig-Moreland, a criminal justice professor at Wichita State University, told lawmakers at a hearing earlier this year.

Victims held in juvenile detention are exposed to possible “contagion” from their delinquent peers, Craig-Moreland said.

“Research has repeatedly shown that the ‘good’ kids become more like the ‘bad’ kids,” she said.

At Sedgwick County’s juvenile detention facility, staff keep a watchful eye over trafficking victims to make sure detainees are not recruiting each other, said Glenda Martens, the county's corrections director. But the victims are not held separately from other detainees.

“We’re holding kids. We’re not really supposed to be a treatment provider, but we do offer things,” Martens said, adding that mental health professionals will come in and work with trafficking victims.

In Sedgwick County, the average length of stay in detention for children affected by trafficking was about 33 days between 2013 and 2016, according to presentation slides on the county's juvenile detention system provided by Masterson.

The longest stay was 179 days.

The situation is different in Johnson County, near Kansas City. The county said it has "not encountered substantiated claims of youth being trafficked" in the county, according to spokeswoman Jody Hanson. But she said Johnson County believes trafficking is occurring because it is encountering a number of vulnerable runaways.

Hanson said 15 to 20 youth suspected of being affected by trafficking have been brought to the county's juvenile intake facility over the past two and a half years.

Geography plays a role

The Wichita Children's Home, by contrast, is specifically designed to help trafficking victims.

According to data from DCF, 34 percent of children statewide who received trafficking assessments were in a staff secure facility, the Wichita Children's Home. It's unclear how many were placed there before being assessed and how many went to the facility after.

In terms of assisting victims, the staff secure facility offers advantages over detention. The facility doesn't treat children like criminals, advocates say.

When in detention, trafficking victims are housed with the rest of the population. But in a staff secure facility, they receive specialized care.

“They sleep so much because their bodies are so broken and worn down. They need a place where they can come and rest and be cared for and know that they’re in a safe environment. So that’s what we offer,” said Debbie Kennedy, Wichita Children’s Home CEO.

Victims in eastern Kansas are less likely to have access to the facility, however.

The DCF data shows that children assessed by KVC were placed in a staff secure facility just 8 percent of the time. Children assessed by Saint Francis were placed in the staff secure facility 45 percent of the time.

Both organizations said the location of the facility in Wichita — squarely in Saint Francis territory — played a role.

KVC spokeswoman Jenny Kutz said the Wichita Children’s Home is a more convenient location for children assessed by Saint Francis than those assessed by KVC.

Janis Friesen, a spokeswoman for Saint Francis, said that Wichita-area law enforcement often use the staff secure facility to house children suspected of being trafficked while they investigate their cases.

Kutz said KVC and Saint Francis use similar assessment tools and because of that the recommendations produced by their assessments should be similar. Although children assessed by KVC are not often in a staff secure facility, she noted that the DCF data shows a greater percentage of children assessed by KVC are in emergency shelters, foster care or are returned to their parents than those assessed by Saint Francis.

Kutz also said that Saint Francis receives grant funding from the attorney general's office to work with trafficking victims that KVC does not receive. The funding provides a therapist to work with children.

Kansas isn’t the only state where the types of services victims receive may depend on geography. said Sarah Bendsten, policy counsel at the anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope International. She said some states have multiple facilities designed to help victims but that their locations can be challenging.

“They sometimes tend be centered in urban areas. So youth who are identified in more rural areas face a lot of barriers,” Bendsten said. “Especially in those first 24 hours.”

DCF has expanded the beds available to children throughout the state, though it has not expanded the number of staff secure beds. A private provider opened a new emergency shelter this spring in Wellington, for example. The facility can house 28 children, though it is not specifically meant for trafficking victims.

“I think one of the things that continues to kind of be an issue for us is our beds aren’t always full now. So it’s hard to say we should create more beds like that if those beds aren’t full now," Meier-Hummel said.

No guidance on prosecutions

Some advocates have suggested that trafficking victims are sometimes kept in detention in order to aid in the prosecution of their traffickers.

Filing charges against trafficking victims as a way to secure testimony against pimps and traffickers is a tactic used in states around the country, Bendsten said. But victims are much more likely to cooperate with investigators if they are met with a protective instead of punitive response, she said.

Some states provide immunity from prosecution to trafficking victims. Kansas doesn't, but lawmakers have passed measures that allow victims to use their trafficking as an affirmative defense against criminal charges.

"When survivors have been exploited and harmed their whole life and then are further criminalized and harmed by service providers then we are pushing them further away and back to the traffickers," said one trafficking victim who has been prosecuted.

The Kansas attorney general’s office does not have official guidance on prosecutions of minor trafficking victims, nor does it keep statistics on such prosecutions, said spokeswoman Jennifer Montgomery. Nearly all criminal prosecutions in Kansas are handled by local authorities, she said.

“The attorney general does recognize that the dynamics of the crime of human trafficking requires particular sensitivity to its effect on victims,” Montgomery said.

'A long ways to go'

There are signs that fewer children believed to be trafficked are ending up in detention.

While the DCF statewide data is not broken out by year, admissions of possible trafficking victims to Sedgwick County’s juvenile detention facility have been falling.

In 2014, 28 possible victims were admitted to detention in Sedgwick County, Martens said. By 2017, the number fell to 20.

Just three possible victims had been admitted this year.

“We’re not really seeing them in detention,” Martens said.

In the past, stays in the Wichita Children's Home staff secure facility tended to be limited to about 72 hours, she said. But that has changed, and now whoever places the child in the facility — whether it's police or a DCF contractor — can keep the child there are long as they believe it is necessary.

The Wichita Children’s Home plans to add additional staff secure housing for extended stays by trafficking victims, Kennedy said.

In addition, Saint Francis plans to lease space within the Sedgwick County juvenile detention facility to offer secure care — another type of youth residential care with locked doors designed for children who are a high flight risk. Only children who have a "no run" court order will be eligible to stay there.

The space will have 18 beds, Friesen said. Saint Francis plans to open the space in September.

And DCF plans to hire an anti-human trafficking coordinator. Meier-Hummel, the DCF secretary, said the agency wants to look at the services it’s providing and see if it’s doing everything it should be doing.

Kennedy said everyone involved in anti-trafficking efforts had worked together well to address the issue. She noted Kansas’ “A” grade from Shared Hope International and said Kansas has done a “phenomenal job.”

Still, more can be done, Meier-Hummel said.

She indicated the agency can do more to make sure it’s reaching out to all victims and that services are in place. She also listed awareness of trafficking and helping youth avoid being trafficked by understanding risk factors for trafficking.

“I think we’re a lot farther than we were,” she said. “I think we have a long ways to go.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman