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Love Not Lock Up
January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. During this month, the Wichita State University Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT) provides opportunities for community members, leaders, and multidisciplinary professionals to learn more about issues related to human trafficking. Our goal is to engage our community in a discussion of how to best serve those vulnerable to and subjugated to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. 

An issue we have focused on this year is educating the public about the continued arrest and imprisonment of minor female victims in our state, community, and country. Even as Kansas garnered an “A” grade from Share Hope International (a national political organization that ranks and rates states on their anti-trafficking legislation), CCHT has worked extensively with three young women over the last year who were minor victims of human trafficking facing charges/convictions of human trafficking. 

The stories of these three young women reflect a national trend, where in the push to arrest and convict traffickers, the lines between trafficker and victim are blurred. The structure of human trafficking is complex and traffickers often utilize victims to exploit other victims in order to distance themselves from the crimes committed under his/her/their direction. As described in one case from Texas, once a victim is charged with human trafficking, often the only way to prove their innocence is to testify against his/her/their trafficker. However, traffickers’ use of fear and love to trap their victims makes this difficult. Even while in jail or prison, traffickers typically have a network of family or friends who assist in harassing or threatening victims who may offer to testify. 

Building upon early childhood traumatic experiences, the three young women we worked with at CCHT were abused and exploited due to significant micro, mezzo, and macro risk factors. Without adequate support systems within our community, they were further failed by our systems of care and justice. Such failure often pushes victims/survivors further into a life of trafficking and other forms of violence. Two of these young women (one of whom is only 16 years old and should automatically be considered a victim by our state and federal laws), have already taken plea deals and sentenced to prison. In addition to facing the fear and trauma of their experiences, victims are often provided with inadequate or unprepared legal defense and therefore see no other option than taking a plea deal in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence. Noted in the popular documentary 13th as well as within research and articles such as Innocence is Irrelevant, the increase in plea bargains is one of the greatest injustices of our time. The final young woman, exploited throughout her teens, turned herself in at 17 and has been fighting her charges for more than 2 years. She faces 55 years in prison if convicted of the charges brought against her.  

Felony convictions set these young women up for continued difficulty in their lives. Rather than providing opportunities for healing from their traumatic experiences, these women and girls are labeled as felons and sex offenders and opportunities to change their lives are decimated. However, when engaged in relational programming such as the CCHT Lotus Anti-Trafficking ModelTM Pathway to ProsperityTM, survivors of trafficking have demonstrated their capacity to holistically heal and thrive toward prosperity. Their stories often left untold, these are the girls and women who, with the support of an intentional community, access sustainable housing, education, and employment allowing them to rise above their trauma.

In order to engage in dialogue about the issues of criminalization, CCHT is hosting a screening of “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story.” This documentary tells the story of Cyntoia Brown. After being purchased for sex by a 43-old man, then 16-year old Cyntoia killed this purchaser in self-defense. She was sentenced to life in prison. Even as her case receives national attention today, the prosecutor in her case affirms his stance that Cyntoia is not a victim. Such views fail to account for the victimization of this young girl and demonstrate and lack of understanding regarding the complexity of human trafficking. 

Daniel Birman, producer of the film, has witnessed similar stories across the country and is using his documentary to influence laws and policies that should protect trafficked individuals. Dan will share a screening of us film as well as his insight into this issue from a national perspective. Our intention, again, is to engage our communities in conversation about how we can better serve victims and how we can better communicate the complex reality of human trafficking. 

We have invited civic leaders representing Kansas in local, state, and federal positions to also take part in this conversation. After viewing the film, these civic leaders will provide a response on how we can better address this issue in Wichita and across Kansas. 

We hope you will join us for this unique opportunity to not only hear from Daniel Birman, but to also engage in conversation with our civic leaders on how to fight abuse, exploitation, and trafficking without causing further harm to the victims of these crimes. The event will be held at the Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 5015 E 29th Street N, Door A. Doors open at 5:00 pm and the Central and Rock Chick-Fil-A will be providing dinner for the first 150 attendees. Event details can be found here

Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm is a licensed master social work and a doctor of psychology with more than two decades of personal, professional practice, and community-based research expertise in the anti-trafficking movement. With various first-hand vantage points, and operating from a strengths-based and social justice perspective, she has served locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally as a street outreach worker, direct-service program coordinator, therapist, community response organizer, human rights advocate, researcher, educator, and public policy developer. Dr. Countryman-Roswurm serves as the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking and is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Wichita State University.

Allison Farres is a Master’s level social worker and serves as the Strategic Programming and Evaluation Specialist at the Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT). Allison’s primary focus is working with survivors of abuse and exploitation through the Pathway to Prosperity™ program and evaluating the effectiveness of CCHT programming. Allison has been involved in anti-trafficking work at CCHT since 2015.