Wichita continues to be a city where minors are lured into sex-trafficking; runaway and homeless youth are picked up then taken across state lines, often into Texas or Missouri.
This happens, in part, because Wichita and Sedgwick county are situated at the crossroads of America. There is easy access to major highways that can quickly take people across state lines. This location makes south-central Kansas a prime spot for domestic minor sex-trafficking, known as DMST, which is the buying and selling of children and youth for sexual purposes.
"Wichita, Kansas, we are an originating city, we are an originating state," says Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Wichita State University.
"Perpetrators, traffickers, tend to come here to get our young people and take them elsewhere."
No Where To Go, No One To Turn To
Countryman-Roswurm has been working with runaway and homeless youth in Wichita for the past 15 years.
She says youth who are lured into sex trafficking often come from homes plagued by economic hardship, domestic violence, and drug abuse. They run away from home, or are homeless and pimps offer them a sense of protection - albeit a false one.
"I think every young person - every little boy, every little girl across the world, wants one person who is absolutely crazy about them and who loves them unconditionally and keeps them safe and protects them and provides their basic needs," she says.
"Unfortunately we have so many young people, even right here in our city that that’s not occurring."
And when you think about it, says Countryman-Roswurm, it is almost easy to see how it happens.
"They have nothing, they have absolutely no one to turn to. It makes sense that they would then say yes to somebody that will perpetrate against them."
Though these youth may feel like there isn't anyone to turn to, Wichita does have something: Street Outreach Services, a program led by the Wichita Children’s Home.
Multiple nights a week Street Outreach Workers canvass the streets in a van looking for youth who may be homeless, runaways or just in need. They carry supplies like socks and sleeping bags in the trunk.
At almost every stop they make street outreach workers, Jess, Martha and Rondell handout or leave a stack of their cards to let youth know there is help, and how to find it.
They take turns running into hotel lobbies on South Broadway, leaving behind cards for any youth that might be in trouble.
Wichita Children’s Home CEO Sarah Robinson says Street Outreach Services plays a large part in keeping Wichita youth out of dangerous situations like sex-trafficking.
"Last year we did more than 200 rescues, meaning that we actually took those children to a safer place, either back home, or to a shelter," says Robinson.
Getting kids off the street, she says, is the first step in preventing sex-trafficking.
A Trendy Topic
It has become a buzzword in recent years, sex-trafficking, drawing national attention through media coverage and campaigns. And while awareness is great for any city, a lot of initiatives focus on survivors.
But as an origination city, says Dr. Countryman-Roswurm, Wichita has different needs.
"If we really care about domestic minor sex trafficking, then we are going to deal with these issues that are not as sexy," she says, "like involving minority populations in conversations and making space for them at the tables of different professional careers and our educational programs."
Wichita’s youth, she says, will continue to be trafficked as long as young women and men in our city don’t feel like they have any other options.