KS: Trafficking task forces prevailing

By Jan Biles
Created June 27, 2009 at 10:32pm
Updated June 27, 2009 at 11:56pm

Kristy Childs ran away from an abusive stepfather when she was a teenager, and within a few months found herself under the control of a pimp and turning tricks first in Denver and then in other cities across the country.

Sometimes, the teenager and the men paying to have sex with her would be arrested and taken to jail. She would be charged with prostitution while the men would be released and told not to go back to the area of town where prostitutes worked.

Childs didn’t understand why she was punished more harshly.

“He was the one in the position of choice,” Childs, now 47, said, explaining how she could have been beaten, raped or killed if she left her pimp.

Since then, attitudes toward human trafficking — a form of modern-day slavery involving labor or commercial sex — have changed.

In 2000, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act was enacted to supplement existing laws and establish new tools and resources to combat human trafficking and provide services and protections for its victims.

The Human Trafficking Rescue Project, a task force based in Kansas City, Mo., and coordinated by assistant U.S. attorney Cynthia Cordes, has resulted in more than 30 people — mostly from Missouri and eastern Kansas — being charged with human trafficking since its founding in 2006.

Among those charged with attempting to engage in a commercial sex act with a child are a Silver Lake man and an Ottawa man netted earlier this year during Operation Guardian Angel, an undercover investigation targeting child prostitution in the Kansas City area.

So far, the Department of Justice has funded 41 task forces comprised of law enforcement and nongovernmental agencies, such as Veronica’s Voice, a recovery program for survivors of criminal sexual exploitation started by Childs in 2000, to help enforce the law and protect victims.

Kansas doesn’t have a human trafficking task force, according to Jim Cross, public affairs officer for the U.S. attorney’s office in Wichita. Cross said he knew of no human trafficking cases filed by that office.

Sex trafficking

Cordes said human trafficking involves commercial sex or labor that is the result of force, fraud or coercion. Its victims can be children or adults, men or women, citizens or noncitizens.

“These are the cases I’m most passionate about. You have to have a lot of patience and go into emergency mode rather quickly,” she said, explaining how cases often break late at night or on weekends.

Operation Guardian Angel, a wide-sweeping sting operation, took both manpower and patience and resulted in the first-ever federal prosecution of the alleged customers of child prostitution under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Working together on the investigation were the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the police departments in Kansas City and Independence, Mo.

In early March, task force officers placed Internet ads for underage prostitutes described as “little girls” and “young.” Those who responded to the ads were given directions to an undercover location that was outfitted with audio and video recording equipment. When the men arrived at the undercover residence and paid cash for a child prostitute, they were arrested.

Arrested were R. J. O., 31, of Ottawa, a truck driver who drove his tractor-trailer to the undercover residence; S. A. C., 32, of Olathe, an active duty naval recruiter; C. M. C., 33, of Amory, Miss., a finance manager for a car dealership; and S. C. A., 40, of Kansas City, Mo., an insurance manager.

In February, during the first round of sting operations, three Kansas men were arrested: R. S. D., 33, of Silver Lake; J. S. J., 22, of Olathe; and S. M., 47, of Overland Park.

All of the men were charged with attempted commercial sex trafficking of a child and using the Internet and telephone to attempt to induce a child to engage in prostitution.

D. is free on $10,000 bond and has filed a motion for a continuance of his trial, which is scheduled for July 20.

Labor trafficking

Cordes said labor trafficking cases typically involve victims who are forced to work at a location or for wages and hours they weren’t expecting.

“It comes down to forced labor and coercion,” she said.

In May, the U.S. attorney’s office indicted eight Uzbekistan nationals and four other people on charges related to labor racketeering, forced labor trafficking and immigration and other violations in 14 states, including Kansas.

The defendants’ criminal enterprise allegedly used illegal aliens as part of its workforce to fulfill labor contracts for housekeeping, cleaning services and other duties. Among the companies owned or controlled by the defendants were Crystal Management, in Mission, and Five Star Cleaning, in Overland Park.

The defendants lured the victims to the United States under the guise of legitimate jobs and a better life.

“The defendants allegedly used false information to acquire fraudulent work visas for these foreign nationals,” said Matt Whitworth, acting U.S. attorney. “Many of their employees were allegedly victims of human trafficking who were coerced to work in violation of the terms of their visa without proper pay and under the threat of deportation. The defendants also required them to reside together in crowded, substandard and overpriced apartments.”

“They were trapped,” Cordes said.

Not all incidents of forced labor are prosecuted as human trafficking cases, particularly in Kansas.

A case in point: Amarpreet Singh, owner of the Globe Restaurant in downtown Topeka, was convicted in April of harboring Indian nationals who worked at his restaurant. Singh withheld workers’ wages and identification documents, required workers to work long hours six days a week and live in an apartment he provided. One of the workers died after complaining he was being forced to work at the restaurant.

Cross said the U.S. attorney’s office chose to prosecute the case as an immigration violation rather than as human trafficking.

“There’s a variety of ways a case can be calculated,” he said, explaining a charge may be based on the “probability for conviction.”

Singh’s sentencing has been set for July 23.

The victims

Cordes said human trafficking cases are different from other cases prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office because the victims — who have been mistreated and traumatized — must be able to testify against the defendants in court.

Unlike with drugs or guns, being in “possession” of a victim isn’t enough evidence to file charges, she said. The victim must talk to authorities before the case can be prosecuted.

“It’s not just a regular witness. It’s a person who’s not whole from the start,” she said, adding that the defendants often count on their victims being too fearful to cooperate with law enforcement.

Cordes said a commercial sex case involving children doesn’t require the prosecutor to prove the child didn’t consent. However, a prosecutor must show that force, fraud or coercion was involved in a case involving an adult victim — the evidence that differentiates human trafficking from prostitution.

Labor traffickers often take the passports and visas of their victims so they can’t leave the country or tell them they will be deported if they report the abuse, she said.

“They take existing immigration laws and turn them upside down to obtain workers illegally,” she said.

Cordes said human trafficking cases require local and federal law enforcement agencies to work together and nongovernmental agencies to coordinate efforts to help the victims transition to a new life.

“We’re just not prosecuting the target but assisting the victims,” she said.

Cordes said victims of labor trafficking don’t get deported after they are rescued. Instead, they can remain in the United States and, based on their cooperation in prosecuting the case, may be able to obtain a T visa that will give them permanent residency and allow them to relocate their immediate families to the United States.

“It’s our country’s way of apologizing for what happened on our land,” she said.

Cordes said law enforcement officers on the street need more training to identify human trafficking, and public awareness needs to be heightened so people will report suspicious activity.

And Childs, who has talked with more than 5,000 women and girls since she started Veronica’s Voice, said society needs to stop glamorizing human trafficking — particularly commercial sex trafficking — in movies, videos and television shows.

“It’s not a new phenomenon,” she said, “but it’s gotten worse as the culture objectifies women and sees them as a commodity.”

Jan Biles can be reached at (785) 295-1292 or jan.biles@cjonline.com.

Original on Topeka Capital Journal

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