Sex trafficking happens in Third World countries, TV movies and nightmares. That it also happens in Wichita is unfathomable.
Or would be, except that police and social workers have investigated at least four cases this year and suspect many other kids are at risk, according to an article in last Sunday’s Eagle.
Investigators say sexual exploitation is a sideline for street gangs that’s been growing in scale and sophistication. They worry that 300 to 400 area children are significantly at risk to become victims every year, and that dozens or even hundreds already have been taken.
As crimes go, it’s harder to see but devastating to the children it preys upon. It’s tangled up in other societal challenges such as poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and pornography. Like other gang crimes, it can cover a lot of geography and law-enforcement jurisdictions. It’s also served by the silence and denial of those around it.
Confronting the problem of sex trafficking make take a strong stomach, because of what such a crime says not only about the perpetrators but about the adults who are supposed to stand between children and such horrors.
The details of the case best known to Wichitans still shock four years later: Father and son Bobby Prince Sr. and Bobby Prince Jr. ran a sex ring, luring at least six local 13- to 16-year-old girls to Oklahoma to variously work as prostitutes and be “sold” to truck drivers and pimps. Father and son were sentenced to more than 12 years and five years, respectively.
Another Wichita man was convicted last year for taking a 15-year-old to Dallas and putting her to work as a prostitute within two hours of arrival, reportedly giving her eight condoms, a price list and instructions not to come back with less than $400.
To their credit, social workers, law enforcement authorities, medical professionals, community corrections officials and the Wichita Children’s Home are working toward a more coordinated and stronger response to such criminal activity. Last week about 200 people participated in a multidisciplinary conference on the issue, to build on the ongoing good work of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit. Soon they’ll apply for a federal grant that could bolster the effort.
Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Sgt. Amy Tracy, who works in the EMCU, told The Eagle editorial board that “Wichita is one of the top cities in the nation as an originating city” for girls that are trafficked elsewhere.
“Wichita has a problem that needs to be addressed…. Just because we’re in the Midwest doesn’t make it a safer place,” she said, stressing the need for more community awareness as well as more coordination to deal with cases and help victims.
Lawmakers and local leaders must stay informed and engaged as well, to ensure that law enforcement and the justice system have the tools and resources to counter such a threat.
The pervasiveness of the problem is hard to know. But if authorities’ estimates of cases of sexual trafficking and other exploitation have any proximity to reality, the community has a big problem. And people must have the courage, as well as the conscience, to report it when they see it.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman