January is a month devoted to raising awareness of human trafficking, and Marissa Woodmansee, director of Juvenile Services for Barton County, did her part Saturday afternoon at a public informational event at the Great Bend Public Library. She shared some background on the evolution of her own human trafficking awareness, and recent developments of importance to the community, especially parents of pre-teens and teens.
“It’s important to understand what human trafficking is and what it looks like,” she said. According to the website for the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is modern-day slavery.
“Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims and force them into labor or commercial sexual exploitation. They look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons, including psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability.”
Sadly, the age victims sex traffickers are targeting is increasingly younger.
In 2013, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed a comprehensive bill into law, strengthening statutes related to human trafficking, with an emphasis on protecting children from commercial sexual exploitation. As a result, Woodmansee began researching the subject. At a conference held at the Dream Center in Great Bend in 2014, she was asked how many cases she had taken that were involved with human trafficking. Her answer at that time was zero.
“I had never had a youth brought to me for juvenile intake and assessment as a victim of human trafficking,” she said. “That’s because what we see is a child in need of care. We see a runaway. We see theft of your car. We see truancy. That’s how they come to us. They don’t come raising their hand, saying ‘I’m a victim of trafficking.’ In 2014, we were at a stalemate, if you will, policy-wise.”
Since then, much has been done to raise awareness among law enforcement and the community at large, and it’s helping because the number of reports by people in the community, by victims, and by family members of the victims are beginning to come in, and some lives have been saved.
In 2018, Woodmansee was involved in the intake and assessment of two out-of-state minors involved in sex trafficking. Her district covers five counties, including Ellsworth and Russell counties, both along the I-70 corridor which experiences a higher-than-average amount of trafficking.
We can’t allow the trafficking of children to be clouded by a lack of awareness.Marissa Woodmansee, director of Juvenile Services for Barton County
One involved a teen who responded to an online ad for a ride, hoping to travel to California. The teen exchanged sex for the ride, and the trafficker was caught with the teen in the cab of his truck when law enforcement noticed the age difference between the driver and his passenger and pulled the truck over.
The other involved a case of familial trafficking. The mother of the child involved secured a ride from Iowa to Colorado and back in order to procure marijuana, and exchanged sex with her teen for the transportation. Video evidence was eventually secured from a cell phone when the child gave up the password.
“Both of those men are currently in our jails awaiting prosecution,” Woodmansee said. “The girls were sent back to their sending states.”
Woodmansee shared some global statistics. Human trafficking is second only to the drug trade for organized crime and is expected to exceed it in coming years. The reason is simple; because drugs can only be sold once, but a person can be sold multiple times, Woodmansee explained. Currently, sex trafficking is a $150 billion industry, and over 1 million children have been exploited for sex, she added.
The current average age that children are lured into sex trafficking is 12 years old, with some even as young as nine or 10, Woodmansee said.
“Adult prostituted women have reported the age they were first prostituted as age 14, and (they) knew that was getting younger,” she said.
In the United States, one in three runaways is contacted by a sex trafficker in the first 48 hours they are on the street. Woodmansee broke it down to the district level. In 2017, of 518 cases processed by her office, 88 involved runaways.
“Because I know this, when I have 11-year-olds coming in as child in need of care at 2 a.m. because they were walking around, I can tell them it’s not safe.”
Instances like that aren’t a fluke. She sees many cases like that in the course of a year.
The kids are young enough, they often don’t even know sex trafficking is what they are being lured into, Woodmansee said.
Another eye opening statistic Woodmansee shared: 95 percent of children exploited by sex traffickers have been in the foster care system at some point in their life. The same factors involved in becoming a child in need of care, like abuse, neglect, violence and addiction, are also vulnerabilities traffickers seek to exploit.
Law enforcement has reported that gangs in Kansas are finding it more lucrative to sell people than drugs, so its important for the community to be aware and for parents to be vigilant.
Statistically, most victims of sex trafficking are girls, but boys are targeted too. Often the exploitation starts out as a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with a significantly older boy or man. Extravagant gifts are common, and children pulling away from friends and family are warning signs that a child may be exploited.
“Maybe its designer jeans today, and maybe its your nails tomorrow,” Woodmansee said. “Maybe its another cell phone. Maybe its getting your hair done. Maybe its a car. All the bad guy has to do is figure out how to fill that young person’s void, or maybe all he has to do is promise it.”
Often, traffickers build bonds with their victims by lavishing them with gifts and attention, then ask them to do something they may not want to do. Once the child is gives in for any reason, the trafficker has achieved his or her first objective and is now in control.
Woodmansee encourages parents to ask questions, lay down rules and stick to them, If they are not the person who provided their child with an item, know who did.
Phone apps are one important way traffickers make contact with kids, so parents need to consider installing parental controls and monitoring usage of any and all kinds of social media and game apps, Woodmansee said. Keeping up with what’s new is a full time job, even for her.
Proof that raising awareness is helping is the number of reports to hotlines Woodmansee shared. Community members are by far the largest group reporting possible trafficking, followed by family members and the victims themselves.