State, advocates work to toughen laws against child-sex trafficking

Anna Pilato, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, discusses ways to reduce child sex trafficking at a meeting with social service providers.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families is working with law enforcement on legislation aimed at reducing sex trafficking of teenagers, a department official told Wichita child-service providers Wednesday.

The legislation being drafted is designed to enhance penalties for traffickers and customers who drive demand for underage prostitutes, while treating children in the sex trade as victims rather than criminals, said Anna Pilato, DCF’s deputy secretary for strategic development, faith-based and community initiatives.

She said the proposed legislation is being written in conjunction with Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office, law enforcement agencies and judges.

DCF’s role will be to ensure that girls and boys who become involved in the sex industry get the help they need to get out and ongoing support to re-enter society in a more productive role, Pilato said.

This year, a bill to address sex-trafficking of minors passed the Senate 39-0, but then stalled in the House of Representatives and died at the end of the legislative session.

DCF is also working to try to determine the scope of the problem in Kansas. National researchers estimate that about 200,000 girls and boys nationwide are involved in sex trafficking or at risk, said Lucy Bloom, a special assistant with DCF.

Diana Schunn, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County, said child sex workers generally come from family situations that don’t provide them a lot of support.

A big part of solving the problem will be getting everyone to understand that youth prostitutes “are as important as any other child abuse we work with,” Schunn said.

She said it’s equally and possibly more important to deal with the adults who drive the sex trade.

It’s a particularly lucrative racket for the procurers, because while a drug dealer can only sell a given supply of drugs once, a pimp “can sell a girl over and over again in one evening,” she said.

And there are some who are willing to spend big money for sex with children.

“If demand wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be seeing these victims,” she said.

But even if advocates get the laws they want on the books, there isn’t a quick fix to the problem, Schunn said.

“It isn’t a situation that happened overnight and it’s not going to be fixed overnight,” she said.

While Pilato was meeting with the service providers, her boss, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore was meeting with city, county and law-enforcement officials on child support, another priority where the department is drafting potential legislation.

Gilmore said the DCF is considering a bill that would require the department to be notified when a parent who is in arrears on child support receives financial benefits from an insurance company or the workers’ compensation system.

“Right now, there is no mandatory communication if something is coming forth,” Gilmore said.

If the DCF knew of the payments, it could issue liens to ensure that child-support responsibilities are met, she said.