Last month, FBI officials recovered four underage victims and arrested eight pimps as part of a nationwide human trafficking sting. According to the FBI, the child recoveries took place within Wichita and the greater Kansas City area.
The youngest local victim was 14. The recovery is only part of a national push to stop human trafficking and help victims.
“Ultimately human trafficking is a larger umbrella that encompasses both labor and sex trafficking," says Karen Countryman-Roswurm, the founder and the executive director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University. "And it can happen at an international level or a domestic level.”
Some reports put Wichita high on the list for the crime, but Countryman-Roswurm does not believe that’s necessarily correct.
“Everything I live, eat, sleep and breathe is human trafficking and it's been that way for nearly 20 years. Every state thinks that their state is the top state for human trafficking," she says. "So I guess what I'm saying with that is I don't know that we have any more human trafficking in Wichita, Kansas, than anywhere else in the country, or in the world for that matter."
But, she says Wichita and Kansas do have features that are risks for originating and continuing human trafficking because of our location--for one thing.
“We have large highways coming through Wichita and Kansas, but so do many other cities and states," Countryman-Roswurm says. "We have an Air Force base. And what research shows is that men who move a lot and who are separated from their families tend to purchase sex at greater rates. We also have a large rural communities throughout the state of Kansas. Research says that in rural communities, folks will exploit low-cost labor and low-cost sex.”
But as far as who is at risk to be trafficked? Countryman-Roswurm says everyone--including young people from upperclass families where both parents are at home.
"What we do know by research though is obviously, there are some risk factors and those primary risk factors include coming from a broken home, mom and dad are divorced; coming from a situation where there's drug and alcohol addiction; where there's physical and sexual abuse," she says. "And I would say the sexual abuse is absolutely key. Two of the other greatest risk factors within the United States is being a runaway and homeless youth.”
The No. 1 risk factor, she says, is age.
“It's youth," she says, "particularly for boys between 11 and 13. For girls, it's a little bit higher; it's 12-15.”
Countryman-Roswurm says that while those risk factors do play a large role, the faces and lives of who this happens to can be very different.
“For example, one young lady I worked with came from a home that nobody would've assumed that she was at-risk. Her parents were still married. They were upper-class," Countryman-Roswurm says. "So this young lady, seemingly having no risk, would tell you that what put her at risk is that her parents gave her everything she could have ever wanted. She lived in a nice home; she had access to a vehicle at a very early age; she had access to computers and television, fancy clothes, whatever she wanted.”
But what was not accessible to her was time with her parents.
"Then you have on the flipside of that, there's a young lady who was born into a home situation where her mother was not married," Countryman-Roswurm says. "Her mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her mother invited men in at a very early age who were using drugs and so she ended up getting sexually molested.
"She was eventually put into our system of care within the state of Kansas and just spent most of her life being moved from foster home to foster home to group home to group home and never really made any attachments. Eventually when she was on the run she ended up with a boyfriend who basically ended up acting as her pimp, as her trafficker.”
But Countryman-Roswurm says the stories of those young women, while they might catch our attention, are really not the point. As director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking, she has published and conducted exhaustive research and knows the stats on human trafficking by heart. But that’s not what she wants to tell people.
“I could throw out stats all day. But, how does that mobilize somebody to do something?" she says. "I think what that encourages is just this kind of, ‘Oh my gosh!’ OK, but did that move you to action? These numbers and statistics are not just designed to make somebody go ‘Oh, wow.’ No! Research is designed to have a direct service."
So what does she suggest as the first step we can take to stop this crime from happening around us when it's hidden in plain sight? We can build relationships and connect with those around us, she says.
“Does education help? Does access to employment help? Of course. Absolutely. But at the root, at the foundation of all that, is a relationship. It's connection with somebody else," Countryman-Roswurm says. "Because all of us ultimately need at least one person in our life who's absolutely crazy about us no matter what.”
And we need to stop focusing on the stereotypes of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, she says. We need to stop reading articles and watching news clips and reacting with conversation and anguish, but nothing more.
"And what I want to cry out to Kansans and to people all over the country is, 'Let's stop getting titillated by the stories, folks,'" she says. "If we really care about this, we don't need to hear the stories anymore, we just need to truly just pour into relationships with those that are around us."
Countryman-Roswurm says everyone, regardless of who you are, where you are, or what you do, can have a positive effect on the life of someone else.
“Within the position you're in, in your life right now, if that's a mother, if that's a stay-at-home father, if that's a school teacher, if that's a pastor or a priest or a rabbi, if that is a college professor, if that's somebody who works at Starbucks or you're a gas station attendant, in that position you are where you were created to be and use it and pour into the lives of other people because this isn't just about trafficking," she says. "This is about racism; this is about ageism; this is about poverty; this is about homelessness; this is about lack of access to food and education. All of these issues are connected and we can all make a difference on these issues when we just connect with others.”
Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.
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