Local agencies fight human trafficking, misconceptions about the crime

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SEDGWICK COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) – A silent crime is sweeping the streets nationwide threatening the safety of men, women, children and adults. That crime is human trafficking.

Many people have a misconception about trafficking victims, denoting them as criminals rather than victims.

“Perception is really important. For one, the language that we use to talk about people is really important so talking about this issue in terms of victim-centered language vs. you know, calling somebody a prostitute, especially a child, that’s really important,” said Jennifer White, executive director for ICT S.O.S. “And then understanding too, the grooming process that happens, the force, the coercion that happens so you know, the kiddo that is acting a certain way, that’s dressed a certain way… There may be things going on behind the scenes that we don’t know.”

Sedgwick County is working to not only change that perception but to end the problem.

In an effort to bring the issue to the forefront, January was declared human trafficking awareness month.

“I think it’s really important to know that you know, yes, this is an issue that affects our community but there’s really great work being done here,” White said. “Our enforcement folks, our social workers, our medical folks have all had tons of training. They’re getting better and better at identifying victims.”

Human trafficking is defined by the Department of Homeland Security as involving “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”

“This crime is completely about manipulation. It’s completely about just taking advantage of someone’s situation in life and using it for personal gain,” said Travis Rakestraw, Exploited and Missing Child Unit (EMCU) commander. “Usually the people that want to exploit children, they want to get them away from their friends, their family, which makes them even more dependent upon that person who’s taking advantage of them.”

The EMCU works side by side with other local agencies and organizations to prevent trafficking and help identified victims.

Those organizations include ICT S.O.S., which is located alongside the EMCU in Sedgwick County’s new Child Advocacy Center.

“Being here in the Child Advocacy Center and housed with our Exploited Missing Child Unit, it makes it really easy then for us to jump in and help with some of those needs,” White said.

One way ICT S.O.S. helps is by putting together what they call “fresh start bags” for trafficking victims.

The name sums it all up. Fresh start bags include everything from clothing and hygiene items, to gift cards for fast food—a few items to get victims back on their feet.

“If we can help do something the first time something bad happens to someone and send that message that, ‘you’re worth something nice and new and you know, somebody took the time to put this together for you,’ that sends a really powerful message; even more than the clothing and the hygiene items that are in the bag,” White said.

Once a victim is identified, they’re put into police protective custody, given a fresh start bag and offered services like therapy and medical examinations.

“I think that they start to feel better about themselves and that’s just one small step in getting them to trust us and to get on the path to recovery,” Lt. Rakestraw said.

ICT S.O.S. launched a student advisory board called ICT HOPE, which stands for “helping overcome and prevent exploitation.”

Tomorrow on Kansas Today, KSN will explain how ICT HOPE is playing a part in combatting human trafficking in the Wichita area.

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