Tackling human trafficking head on

by Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

LEAVENWORTH — Swarming.

It’s a military tactic familiar to Army veteran Maria Minchew and John Nelson, both members of Sacred Heart-St. Casimir Parish in Leavenworth and their business partner Dr. Rick Morris. 

The concept is simple: In a well-coordinated and deliberate attack, a target is struck simultaneously from all directions. The trio has seen the technique work successfully against terrorism networks and drug trafficking. 

The tactic can be used, they said, not only in military operations but also to confront societal problems. In fact, that’s just what the trio hopes to do within the Topeka region as they confront one of the area’s most pressing problems — human trafficking. 

In December 2017, Minchew was bowled over by an article she read in her archdiocesan paper.  The Leaven article — “Think it’s not happening near you? Think again” — focused on human trafficking in the region. 

“When I read that article, I was stunned,” said Minchew. “I was actually pretty amazed because we were so used to working with the problems down on the border in terms of drug trafficking. I was surprised to see what a network of illicit activity was happening right here in the Kansas City and Topeka areas.”

But that wasn’t all. 

“We studied the article,” said Minchew. “I’ve got notes all over my copy that I still have.”

She wasn’t the only one with that reaction. 

Around the same time, Nelson and Morris were discussing lessons learned from their antidrug-trafficking efforts and the complexities of fighting transnational crime networks. Then, the article showed up in Nelson’s mailbox.

“The article came out and I read it. Maria read it, too, and we forwarded it to Rick,” said Nelson. “At the same time, Rick was talking to some close associates of his from years past who minister at Vineyard Church. They had a counter-trafficking ministry.”

“So, there was a collection of these things and events,” Nelson added, “and we said, ‘Maybe we should get involved in this fight and make a difference.’ 

“We recognized many of the people involved in the drug trafficking trade were also involved in the human trafficking trade.” 

Through a series of conversations, calls and emails, the three were finally connected to the Rev. Barry Feaker, executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission, who introduced them to Topeka’s Safe Streets Coalition.

Founded in 1995, the coalition’s mission is to create “a healthier community by addressing substance abuse and crime through prevention education and citizen empowerment.”

The coalition meets monthly to assess crime and safety issues facing the community. For the past two years, the coalition has partnered with Freedom Now USA to combat human trafficking within the region. 

After meeting with the coalition, the team learned there was a host of people and organizations already working in areas of prevention and education, victim services and law enforcement. 

Still, the trio felt the experts could leverage those relationships and more effectively attack the problem using swarming tactics.

“Each of [the various sectors] is looking at the problem from its own lens. Together, they can create a holistic picture of what it looks like and, together, they can creatively come up with ways to attack that problem and solve it,” said Nelson.

“It takes a network of people to beat a network of people,” he added.

Earlier this year, the trio sat down with each of the more than 20 sectors identified as having a stake in the communitywide problem, and studied each’s mission, objectives and day-to-day operational details.

The information was then shared with the entire coalition in April at a two-day conference. 

Next, the team turned its to attention to the threat networks.

For example, one system- mapping exercise involved creating diagrams of how the “supply chain” works and investigated how trafficking relates to neighboring communities such as Lawrence or Kansas City.

It also identified the location of vulnerable neighborhoods and addressed the role of drugs within the networks, as well as the connection among the key traffickers.

“You don’t fight human trafficking in a vacuum. You have to fight it as a community,” Nelson said. “It’s tied to homelessness. It’s tied to poverty. It’s tied to moral decay. . . . You have to address them all, or you’re not going to be effective in the long run.”

One deeply disturbing trend the team has noted is the ease with which illicit human trafficking occurs in plain sight on the internet. In a matter of seconds, a simple internet search can produce a list of “providers” and “services” within the region.

The ease of finding such information online, the team said, has led to an increase in pornography use among children, sexual assault of children by other children and trafficking of children by other children.

“Human trafficking is extremely profitable because it’s a non-rivaled good, and it’s one that can be repeatedly used,” Morris said.

Nelson agreed, adding the average trafficked person is used five to seven times a day. 

“Run the numbers,” Nelson said, “That one girl can make a trafficker an enormous amount of money.”

Relying upon those numbers, Minchew said, an average trafficked woman is assaulted around 3,000 times each year.

“You have a woman who is being assaulted five to seven times a day. Every single time, that’s a crime,” Minchew said. “You look at the number of crimes committed. People don’t really wrap their heads around that. Every single time, a woman is bought and violated.” 

“It’s probably much worse,” she continued, because the numbers are probably underreported.

Despite it all, Nelson said they have found much hope and solace in their faith, as well as in the growing awareness of the problem within society. 

“The community actually gives me hope because you have 20-plus sectors of individuals who have been committed to changing this [system],” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. I have hope that they will make a difference. I have hope that all different faith communities have been engaged.”

Morris agreed.

“It’s begun to cross genders, political divides, religious divides, etc.,” he said. “Things have definitely shifted for the better and this, in turn, is bringing a whole bunch of folks who were not engaged before.

“I think by the grace of God we will figure out how to work this problem.”

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