In the name of stealing away what few moments I can for reflection and restoration, I have remained fairly quiet on social media over the last couple of months. But today, I cannot remain silent. Today, I cry out for justice. Today, I plead with my community, I beg you—particularly those of you who have claimed commitment to anti-violence efforts, to rise-up for Hope.
Representative of the majority of survivors I have walked alongside over the last twenty-two years in the anti-trafficking movement, Hope is a young lady whose vulnerabilities in life were preyed upon and exploited. A minor victim of human trafficking herself, Hope remained under the control of a perpetrator who, as typical in trafficking situations, utilized her social media account to attempt contact with one of her peers. Thus, while the attempt was unsuccessful, and the perpetrator never made direct contact with nor exploited Hope’s peer, such interaction is deemed as “recruitment” under the action element of the crime of human trafficking. For this, there is an opportunity to prosecute Hope for human trafficking. For this, Hope—our daughter, our sister—who she herself was abused and exploited while in our state’s system of “care” and “justice” is charged.
As Hope did not behave as the “perfect victim,” but rather acted in a manner resulting from the trauma-bond formed with her perpetrator (typical for the great majority of human trafficking survivors) and without the proposal of alternatives, she was pushed to accept a plea. With such charge, she will not receive treatment nor recovery for her years of trauma. Rather, she will remain detained in an adult Kansas jail where she will be exposed to others who have been sentenced for drug abuse, battery, fraud, and murder. (Note: In the name of confidentiality and ethical practice, I cannot share in-depth details that have not already been released to the media. While such discretion is unfortunate as it causes our community to rarely hear 1) the context in which such events occurred, 2) the depth of exploitation facilitated not only by the perpetrating trafficker but also the “up-standing” community men who keep pimps in business, nor 3) the re-exploitation disseminated by our very systems of “care” and “justice,” it is necessary.)
With all of this swirling in my head, not to mention the handful of other young women facing similar circumstances, it is hard not to feel disillusioned, disempowered, frustrated, and yes, angry. After all, for decades I have worked alongside multi-disciplinary professionals in our state to better serve victims and survivors of human trafficking. In the name of shifting paradigms and creating an effective response structure, we have engaged in a mass movement of education, developed new programs, created organizations, and even written law. The “topic” or “issue” of human trafficking has been the platform for politicians, the foundation of new business ventures for impassioned upper-middle-class citizens desiring to “assist,” and the media has encountered insurmountable stories as a result (please see Rise, Unite, Support: Doing “No Harm” in the Anti-Trafficking Movement for more on this topic).
At one point, Kansas claimed to be “ahead of the country” in terms of anti-trafficking efforts. But with the personal, professional direct-practice, and academic/research-based expertise that takes me around the country as an anti-trafficking expert, I can tell you firmly, we are not ahead. We are delayed. In fact, despite the protections set forth within our new anti-trafficking legislation, the rise of criminalizing girls who don’t fit the “perfect victim” status has taken Kansas backward.
In many ways, I wish I could close my eyes, cover my ears, tie my hands, and seal my lips tightly. I wish I didn’t know the truth. I wish I hadn’t been a part of the discussions where I heard and confronted the comments, “someone has to pay,” “my constituents want me to appear harsh on crime,” “if we have the law, we need to be charging the crime,” “I don’t want this for her either…but we don’t have better options then jail,” “we didn’t know about human trafficking and the prosecutor was pushing us to get her to take a plea deal,” “he didn’t mean to do anything wrong or unjust, we really think he is a good guy,” or “there are good men who make a mistake or two that will risk losing everything if she gets out and starts causing trouble.” And in some ways, I wish I wouldn’t have had the privilege to walk alongside the young women and men who know that while their community hosts fundraisers and media campaigns in which the well-to-do community members who purchased them for labor and sex acts join, they are shamed, detained, punished. Oh, how I wish I could un-know. Because what I am left with today is this uneasy feeling and the unshakeable questions that cannot simply be brushed aside: Does our country, our state, our community, still hate women? Hate the poor? Hate people of color? If not, why does it seem as though the privileged behave in a manner that promotes and protects their position of power and that far too frequently perpetrates against the disadvantaged?
I understand, these questions are hard to fathom as they threaten a sense of safety many like to maintain in their minds. It is human nature to believe that our political representatives, legal decision makers, and enforcers of the law are trustworthy. In fact, many in our society even function best under the belief that such officials and representatives are omnipotent—placing them on pedestals in which they seemingly can do no wrong and holding on to the belief that they should not be contested. But with humility and respect, it is not only our right, but our responsibility to ensure that care and justice is provided for our communities most vulnerable by engaging in dialogue and action that holds our representatives accountable. To release such charge, to deny our duty to remain involved as informed, active citizens is dangerous. Like in all populations, there are those who are good and those who are uninformed, those with self-serving agendas, and yes, those who are harmful. May I remind you that it was men and women who had honorable positions, who were worshipped by their communities, who were respected and followed that led the mass murder of Jews, implemented the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, induced genocide upon Native Americans, and who facilitated eugenics to control “wayward girls” and people of lower socio-economic status.
Friends, please do not be titillated by the stories of the current buzz topic—making noise on the sidelines but taking no real action to make a true, lasting difference on the systemic issues of racism, classism, ageism, and sexism. The injustice portrayed in the recently popular 13th on Netflix is real and re-occurring in our own community. Survivors of sex trafficking lose years of their lives, often detained in juvenile detention facilities or adult jails, waiting for adequate legal representation and a fair jury trial. And Hulu’s version of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, is not just a fictional dystopia, but rather, a far-too real illustration of how a patriarchal society thrives even in our modern world. While the series is exaggerated in nature, even in our own state, there are men and women who stand on platforms pregnating their prestige with abolitionism rhetoric, who are the very ones selling and purchasing young women and men—our children—for rape.
With all of this I ask you to speak up for Hope. Stand for Hope. Act on behalf of Hope. With the anti-trafficking efforts we have implemented over the last two decades in Kansas, there is absolutely no excuse for this. Best practices encourage the use of interventions that:
1. Do not criminalize a victim of human trafficking,
2. Protects a victim who engaged in any type of criminal activities under the duress of a trafficker,
3. Ensures that holistic, victim-centered/survivor-led services are facilitated in a consistent, relational manner,
4. Promotes the long-term recovery, restoration, and self-sustainable prosperity of survivors through technical as well as adaptive interventions including housing, psycho-social support, legal advocacy, education and employment (for more about holistic interventions please see It’s More than Just My Body that Got Hurt and the Federal Human Trafficking Plan).
Please, I ask you to not be a part of such neglect, abuse, exploitation, and traumatization by way of silence.
Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm is the Founder and Executive Director of the WSU Center for Combating Human Trafficking. She has over 22 years of combined personal, direct practice, advocacy, and research expertise in the anti-trafficking movement.