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Human trafficking

Call for Community Action Conference looks to abolish sexual exploitation of juveniles in Kansas and Missouri

by Bob Hart The scenario is all too real, and all too common. A young girl, usually fleeing an abusive home environment, finds herself on the streets with no means of supporting herself. An older man seeks her out. He’s nice to her. He buys her things and gives her shelter.

Eventually he begins demanding sex, as “payment” for all he’s done for her. Before long, he insists that she have sex with other men as well. He tells her that if she goes to the police, she’ll be arrested and go to jail. She’s terrified and doesn’t want to comply, but soon realizes she has few, if any, options.

In a very short period of time, this girl — who may be as young as 12 or 13 — has become a commodity for the use and pleasure of others. She is a victim of sexual trafficking.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — More than 220 people attended a two-day Call for Community Action Conference aimed at abolishing the sexual exploitation of juveniles in Kansas and Missouri at the Police Training Center here on March 15 and 16.

U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) was the keynote speaker and warned the audience, comprised mostly of law enforcement, medical and nonprofit representatives, that “the Kansas City area is becoming a bit of a hub in the human trafficking industry.”

Brownback, coauthor of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000, referenced the title of a book by Dr. Kevin Bales, “Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy” (University of California Press, 1999), in discussing the phenomenon.

“That’s what we’re seeing — disposable people,” Brownback said, adding that as many as 250,000 children in the United States are enslaved in illegal sex trade activities.

“It is truly one of the dark sides of globalization,” he noted.

Much of the focus of the conference, cosponsored by the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Veronica’s Voice, Global Centurian and The Renewal Forum, was on changing attitudes toward — and perceptions of — sex workers.

“We need to bring the truth of this industry to light,” said speaker Kristy Childs, a former child runaway and prostitute and founder of Kansas City-based Veronica’s Voice. “This is about the total dehumanization and exploitation of the vulnerable. Women and children in this industry are victims, but they are still treated as criminals.”

A recent, real-life anecdote (not from Kansas City, but another large U.S. city) shared with the audience emphasized Childs’ point. It involved police officers discovering a 50-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl alone together in a parked car. The man literally had cash in his hand, which he had just offered to the girl for sexual activity. The officers told the man to “go home,” then arrested the girl for prostitution.

More efforts now, said presenter Sgt. Byron Fassett of the Dallas Police Department’s High Risk Victims and Child Exploitation Squad, are emphasizing the “end user” — that is, the men who seek out child prostitutes and create a demand for their services.

“We identify, prosecute and remove offenders,” Fassett said.

One of Fassett’s co-workers, Detective Catherine De La Paz, discussed the delicate task of identifying high-risk victims, interviewing them and corroborating their stories in an effort to bring their clients (“johns”) and pimps to justice.

In her discussion about understanding the domestic demand for juvenile prostitutes, attorney Laura Lederer discussed several groundbreaking alternative measures that are being used to put the responsibility for juvenile prostitution on the end-user. These included:

• “Second Chance Schools” (sometimes known as “Johns Schools”), pioneered in San Francisco and now offered in 40 cities — a program for first-time offenders, aimed at seriously reducing the number of second and further offences.

• Social marketing campaigns — using TV, radio and social networking to change cultural perceptions. (One city billboard loudly proclaimed: “DEAR ‘JOHN’: Your relationship with our neighborhood is over.”)

• Sting and reverse-sting operations — to identify both victims and perpetrators.

Brownback, in referring to Kansas as “the area that started the fight to end slavery in this country” in the mid-19th century, encouraged those in attendance to continue exploring community response and action to the difficult issue.

“It’s a cycle we can break,” the senator said. “We can be a model for the country.”

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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