When it comes to the insidious crime of human trafficking, Barton County is not immune.
That was the message Family Crisis Center Executive Director Joanne Wonrda had for the Barton County Commission Monday morning. So, to draw more attention to this problem, the commission approved a proclamation marking January as Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Month.
According to the proclamation, all citizens are urged to become more informed on this growing problem, to be vigilant and report suspicious activity, and to work toward solutions to end trafficking in all its forms in all communities.
“So often people think of human trafficking as a costal problem or a metropolitan problem,” Wondra said. “They don’t think it affects us, but it does.”
Referring to a map highlighting human trafficking activity, she said it is coming our direction. “No place in the United States is untouched. It happens everywhere.”
Although Wondra didn’t have the most recent numbers for 2017, she said number of trafficking incidents in the area has between doubled and tripled between 2016 to 2017. “It is on the rise, unfortunately.”
She recognized the members of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Barton County who were present at the meeting. In addition to the center, other agencies involved include Central Kansas Community Corrections, the Barton County Health Department and Juvenile Services of the 20th Judicial District.
“We just need to be aware,” Wondra said. “I think that is the first step.”
“I think this is really an important issue to address,” Commission Chairmwoman Jennifer Schartz said. “Sometimes when you are in the center of Kansas in a small community that sometimes you don’t understand the local impact.”
The proclamation labeled human trafficking as the modern-day slavery, and noted that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery. “It denies human dignity and fuels organized crime,” Wondra said.
“Awareness is growing, but human trafficking still goes unreported due to its isolating nature and the misunderstanding of its definition and lack of awareness about its indicators,” she said. What is needed is increased public education of what it is and what services are available.
“Every individual, business, organization can make a difference,” she said. The center and the task force and law enforcement encourage all citizens “to become more informed of this growing problem and become more vigilant and work towards solutions.”
A growing problem
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking is one of the largest and fastest-growing criminal industries in the world. It is based on recruiting, harboring and transporting people for the purpose of exploitation. Both sex trafficking and labor trafficking occur in Kansas and both adults and children are victims.
On Dec. 19, 2017, Gov. Sam Brownback declared January as Kansas Human Trafficking Awareness Month. “The thing I’m very encouraged about is how much people have awakened to what’s taking place here,” Brownback said. “They see it now. They’re looking for it.”
Shared Hope International, a victim advocacy group that seeks to end sex trafficking and exploitation worldwide, reports that the State of Kansas is the third most-improved state in the nation for its legislative efforts to combat human trafficking and one of only two states that increased four grade levels since the group’s report card began in 2011. Since 2011, Kansas’ score has risen from an “F” to an “A” in the 2017 report.
“We have made considerable progress as a state toward creating the appropriate legal framework to support victims and bring justice to those who perpetrate this terrible crime,” Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said. “The structure of Kansas law is substantially improved, but there is much more work to be done.”
On Jan. 11, he requested introduction of legislation to increase protections for victims of human trafficking.
Current law allows courts to issue a protection from stalking or sexual assault order restraining a defendant from harassment, communication and abusive behaviors in addition to placing restrictions on physical proximity to the victim. The new legislation would provide these same protections for victims of human trafficking. It was introduced Jan. 11 in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Since our state’s first anti-human trafficking law was enacted in 2005, Kansas has worked with strong bipartisan support to make great strides in combating this crime against human dignity,” Schmidt said. “This legislation will provide further protection to victims and provide additional tools for law enforcement to arrest traffickers.”
But, there is much to do. Schmidt said Kansas’ location as a central state makes it susceptible to human trafficking.
The risk factors that are associated with human trafficking include abuse, neglect, drug use, poverty, and probably most importantly, demand.
National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is observed every year on Jan. 11 and it was started in 2011 by presidential proclamation of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation designating each January to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The anniversary of this proclamation became known as National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
In late December, President Donald Trump proclaimed January 2018 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, which will culminate in the annual celebration of National Freedom Day on Feb. 1.
What to do?
If someone believes a person is involved in human trafficking or is being exploited by it, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggests a few tips. The department first says to not at any time attempt to confront a suspected trafficker directly or alert a victim to your suspicions.
Instead, contact local law enforcement directly or call various human trafficking tip lines. These include: Calling 1-866-DHS-2-ICE (1-866-347-2423) to report suspicious criminal activity to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line 24 hours a day, seven days a week; submit a tip at ice.gov/tips; or call Homeland Security and the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or texting HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).