Modern day slavery alive in heartland

Jessica Knieff

The darkest industry in our country is one that buys and sells commodities like any other, except that the “products” on this market are individuals being bought and sold as sex slaves.

Sex trafficking is a form of human trafficking that primarily affects children and women at an alarming rate, and this invisible industry is thriving in Kansas.

On the attorney general’s website, Kansas is identified as an originating state for human trafficking, which means children in our home state are at a higher risk of being affected by human trafficking than in others.

According to Derek Schmidt’s, Kansas Attorney General, website, experts view human trafficking as the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, second only to the illegal sale of drugs. More than 83 percent of human trafficking involves domestic survivors, the majority of them being children.

Freedom’s Promise, a non-profit founded and based in Tennessee, is an organization working to prevent human trafficking in Cambodia through community building initiatives. Amber Cunningham, founder, shared insight about some of the misconceptions surrounding human trafficking.

“When a lot of people think of human trafficking, they think that it is an overseas problem or if it’s happening here, it’s immigrants who have come over for that purpose,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham explained that the human trafficking industry is not one that discriminates against ethnicity, economic background or where you live. All children are at risk.

She said that I-70, which runs through Topeka, is a popular corridor for human traffickers, particularly those transporting children.

“Don’t assume that because we’re in the heartland of America that we’re safe, because we’re not,” Cunningham said.

To combat that this, it is imperative that parents and educators become aware of how children are being targeted and exploited. Traffickers are trained to pinpoint vulnerabilities in children, such as isolation and disengagement, to identify them as targets for sex trafficking, according to Cunningham.

While there is a strong need for preventative education against human trafficking, strengthening victim advocacy programs is equally as important.

Dorthy Halley, division director for victim services in the Attorney General’s office, talked about how difficult it is for survivors of trafficking to transition back to normal life outside of the sex trade industry.

Halley said that for those involved in prostitution, many of them were first introduced to the industry as children. This is a lifestyle that they are used to, and without an education to fall back on, survivors often believe that a life outside of sex trafficking is beyond their reach. 

“Even though they don’t have chains around their feet, they are enslaved,” Halley said.

Halley has direct experience with survivors of human trafficking. She says the trauma that these women and children have experienced is extremely complex.

There is no way of knowing the danger the survivors are in if they cooperate with law enforcement. When survivors testify against their traffickers, they may be putting their lives in danger and not enough is being done to protect them, according to Halley.

Halley referenced a study that was done in New York City that found that one of every eight children trafficked in New York over a five year period originated from Kansas. She said that it is hard to know the accuracy of this study, though, as so many cases go unreported and survivors often say what their traffickers told them to say.

“We know that Kansas has a problem,” Halley said. “It is so underground that it is hard to know how big that problem is.”

Topeka has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the nation, according to Emily Steimel, public education coordinator for the YWCA in Topeka. She says that the current Attorney General’s platform on human trafficking has helped to bring this issue to the surface.

“The average age is 12 to enter human trafficking,” Steimel said. “Over half of young women being trafficked are being trafficked by someone they know.”

The YWCA has a variety of resources for survivors of human trafficking in addition to preventative education programs for teachers on the warning signs of trafficking. They educate throughout the community and collaborate heavily with Restore Hope, the Topeka Rescue Mission’s human trafficking unit.

Sharon Sullivan, professor of theater, has dedicated much of her life’s work to fighting violence against women and children. She says that human trafficking is a natural extension of the work she has always done.

She discussed the pros and cons of, a website that is commonly known for its link to human trafficking. This website is known for featuring ads selling sex, many of these ads featuring minors. What is so controversial is that this website regularly features ads such as these, yet this crime is not being prosecuted.

Max Kautsch, attorney, explained the legal loopholes that the website utilizes.

“ and its ilk defend the practice of posting ads that promote human trafficking on the basis that such sites are third-party publishers and thus immune to prosecution under the Communications Decency Act,” Kautsch said.

However, Sullivan explained why this platform can actually help the fight against human trafficking.’s servers are located in the United States, so when law enforcement sees an ad for someone they suspect to be a minor, they can issue a warrant. The website regularly cooperates with providing information, according to Sullivan.

“There is an advantage to keeping [] open for law enforcement,” Sullivan said. “Nobody believes that if [the website] closes that there won’t be anymore ads. They’ll just move to another place.”

Sullivan said that as long as there are people out there that are willing to buy sex, someone will meet that demand.

She said that this complex issue is so multifaceted and so lacking in resources that it is not being addressed as well as it should be. Operations to identify and prosecute those who buy sex are extremely complex, lengthy and expensive.

Sullivan noted the importance of being aware of the way society treats prostitutes. When survivors of the sex trafficking industry try to rejoin society and are treated poorly, there is a higher chance of them losing hope and returning to their trafficker.

“The stigma of prostitution hurts real people,” Sullivan said. “We treat them like trash.”

Sullivan is involved in many organizations that work to fight human trafficking, such as the Topeka Center for Peace and Justice. This organization has a sector called Stop Trafficking and Resist Slavery.

STARS focuses on providing free education about human trafficking throughout Shawnee County. Additionally, they have a Victim Assistance fund that helps cover needs that cannot be paid for by grants or other federal funding.

Sullivan recalled an instance in which a survivor was positively influenced by this fund.

“There was a woman, a girl really,” Sullivan said. “She was 16 or 17 and her pimp wanted her to have red hair to make her more sellable.”

Sullivan said that after having escaped the world of sex trafficking, the woman was attending job training. Each time she looked in the mirror, she saw the person her pimp wanted her to be and all she wanted was to have her natural color and personal identity back. The survivor’s advocate called and asked if it could be paid for from the Victim Assistance fund.

“With only $40, that girl got to see herself in the mirror and not who her pimp wanted her to be,” Sullivan said. “Those are the things the Victim Assistance fund can help with.”

Sullivan says the best thing you can do with limited resources is to educate others. She stressed the effectiveness of simply donating your time or money toward this cause and the way it can help real people in the long run.

“There is so much to do,” Sullivan said. “It can be overwhelming, but what is the alternative?”