A Western Kansas Jail Becomes A Refuge For Teens In Crisis

Mar 5, 2020

GARDEN CITY, Kansas — All of Western Kansas has just one shelter for children who are in protective custody or are victims of sex trafficking. The new shelter isn’t taking kids yet, because it’s waiting on its license, but local officials say those 14 beds are needed.

The Southwest Kansas Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Finney County retrofitted jail cells into shelter spaces, using $500,000 in state grant funding, after a 2017 law kept more kids out of detention centers.

“The side effect of it was it made our juvenile detention centers not have as many kids ’cause it made it very difficult to get into juvenile detention,” said Katrina Pollet, the executive director for the Finney County Department of Corrections.

She said police were having to drive kids to Wichita to find shelter space, which kept the kids from “spending a lot of time in school or just working on whatever issues that they have that got them into the system in the first place.”

She added that the new beds will help kids who don’t have safe home environments. 

“They go to court and the judge says, you know, home just is not a viable option for you right now,” she said. “So instead of sending them back to juvenile detention, the judge can send him right here to the shelter.”

But the shelter beds also can help victims of sex trafficking. Kansas had 43 reports of cases during the first half of 2019, which was fewer than 30 other states. (Nationally during the time period, 4,585 cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.)

Nearly a third of Kansas cases last year involved minors. The juvenile justice center hasn’t seen any victims of sex trafficking in a few years, Pollet said, but the shelter will have a new social worker who is trained to recognize human trafficking.

“Maybe we can be looking and finding out a little bit more about those youth who’ve been human trafficked, so that we identify them earlier on and that we're not putting them back out into a placement where they would be human traffic again,” she said.

Human trafficking statistics are only available at the state level, and aren’t broken down by counties or towns. And experts say detecting human trafficking cases in rural areas can be much more difficult, especially in places like Garden City.

William Sanchez, shelter coordinator for the Department of Corrections in Finney County, speaks with people attending the shelter's open house in February.
Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service

“Finney County has a lot of abandoned homes, abandoned shops, abandoned farm farm ground shops,” said Hailey Knoll, executive director of Family Crisis Services. “Any abandoned property is a really easy place to hide victims.”

Knoll was a detective with the Garden City Police Department for four years and said human trafficking in Garden City doesn’t look like trafficking in Topeka or Kansas City

“I learned that human trafficking in our area isn't about the runways and the tracks,” Knoll said. “It was about the selling of children from overseas.”

Megan Cutter, associate director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, said it’s challenging to find shelters for victims.

“Resources for shelter are often very scarce,” Cutter said. “The more, the better, as long as they’re places where people are receiving victim centered trauma-informed care.”

Like other crimes, Cutter said human trafficking is underreported, and teens can be particularly vulnerable to traffickers.

“We see this a lot online where people start chatting on various apps or dating sites and the person, this potential trafficker … makes a lot of promises,” she said. “And then … the victim is enticed by that and thinks that this person is their boyfriend or their girlfriend and they feel very in love.” 

The juvenile shelter is not yet taking kids, as the license was approved early this year but hasn’t yet arrived.

If you need help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.

Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Corinne_boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.

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