Human trafficking: a growing problem




State officials signed a proclamation at the Statehouse Thursday to announce January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Kansas.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, along with Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Secretary Phyllis Gilmore, Kansas Department for Children and Families and Secretary Lana Gordon, Kansas Department of Labor, all took part in proclaiming the month as such to alert the public to the ongoing issue of human trafficking.

"Human trafficking is a terrible crime kept under wraps due to ignorance," Schmidt said. "People don't believe it's here, but that is far from the truth."

Human trafficking is the criminal activity of holding another person for the purposes of exploitation through forced labor and/or sex trafficking.

According to the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, human trafficking is a $32 billion a year industry, second only to drug trafficking.

Schmidt said in 2013, 217 human trafficking victims were identified in Kansas, up from 44 in 2012, and 27 in 2011. The increase in the identification of the victims has been because of "awareness and not conduct," Schmidt said.

In April 2013, Gov. Brownback signed a law designed to strengthen state efforts to combat human trafficking and commercial exploitation of young women. The law took effect July 1.

With human trafficking used for financial benefit, sexual or labor services, some officials have called it modern day slavery.

"That is often how it is discussed, and I don't think that is incorrect," Schmidt said.

House bill 2034, the new law that took effect in July, now has the ability to severely punish traffickers, and also gives new tools to protect vulnerable young victims "so they can have hope, a new life, and break the cycle of exploitation," Gov. Brownback said.

The bill covers those ages 14 to 17 who were sexually exploited commercially. Commercial exploitation would be a felony punishable with a minimum 25-year prison sentence if the victim is under age 14, and the perpetrator would have to register for life as a sexually violent offender. Fines up to $5,000 would be collected and used to fund victim treatment services.

Under the old law, someone convicted of purchasing sex with a 17-year-old faced a misdemeanor charge with presumptive probation. It is now a felony conviction with sentencing ranging from 50 to 55 months.

According to the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, the majority of trafficking victims are between 18 and 24 years old, 95 percent of victims experienced physical or sexual violence during trafficking, and 43 percent of victims are used for forced commercial sexual exploitation, of whom 98 percent are women and girls.

In 2011, Kansas was one of 26 states that received a failing grade of "F" for having poor sex-trafficking laws, according to a state-by-states analysis on human trafficking. Based on information from the Kansas Legislative Research Department legislator briefing book, charted on a grid with the other 49 states, Kansas only had an "x" marked in criminalizing human trafficking and increasing penalties. No markings were in the columns listed for creating human trafficking task force, commission or committee; providing services and/or protections to human trafficking victims; prohibitions, such as, passport, immigration or other government documents; and a column listed as "miscellaneous."

Schmidt said a common misconception is that individuals who were trafficked also are seen as criminals because of prostitution, but in that regard, the focus should be on the trafficker because of their coercion and control over the victim.

"So, what do we do with those victims?" Schmidt asked.

"With some of the victims having little to no family support, or any support, they may try to run away and revert back to the trafficker," he said.

A secured hospital facility is near completion in Wichita, Schmidt said, and special rules will be enforced to keep them from running away and to provide intervention and services.

Finney County Attorney Susan Richmeier said human trafficking hasn't been abundant in the area, but people have to talk if an issue is suspected.

"I believe we only had one last year that we have charged. Our experience has been fairly limited as far as human trafficking, but we won't know what we'll find as time goes on," Richmeier said.

That one case happened in Garden City on Nov. 13, 2013, when the Kansas Department for Children and Families officials contacted Garden City police about a possible rape of a 13-year-old girl who they believed to be involved in a human trafficking situation.

After investigating, police alleged that two Garden City residents, Maria Castro and Tomas Ramos, paid $8,000 to have the girl brought to the United States from Guatemala.

According to police, the girl was required to work to help pay the debt, and during this time, she met Jose Saban, 20, Garden City. The two allegedly were involved in a sexual relationship from which she became pregnant, according to police.

Castro and Ramos allegedly made an agreement with Saban to give the girl to him for $8,800, $4,000 of which had been paid to the couple prior to their arrests.

GCPD reported Castro and Ramos allegedly threatened Saban by telling him they would turn him in to law enforcement for having sex with the girl if he didn't pay them the rest of the money.

Castro and Ramos were arrested on Nov. 14 on allegations of aggravated human trafficking , conspiracy to commit aggravated human trafficking, aggravated endangerment of a child, and blackmail. Saban was arrested on allegations of aggravated human trafficking, conspiracy to commit aggravated human trafficking and 15 counts of rape stemming from alleged sexual encounters with the girl.

"Our primary mission is to protect the children and all victims," said Theresa Freed, communications director for the Kansas Department of Children and Families. "We encourage anyone who suspects the acts to report it immediately."

Gov. Brownback, Schmidt and Freed all said Kansas' location and interstate system make it a major transportation area for victims of human trafficking, and Schmidt added that the awareness is a critical component to inform the public.

"Human trafficking is the most widespread form of exploitation, and it's important that it is recognized that it does occur," Schmidt said. "We have to bring this problem out of the shadows."

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