Foster care problems left kids vulnerable to sex traffickers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — More than a dozen children who ran away from troubled Kansas welfare system and juvenile corrections placements have wound up incarcerated for crimes related to human trafficking, drawing the ire of victims' advocates and some lawmakers who say the runaways were victims themselves.

After former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011 and reduced aid to needy families, the foster care population ballooned from 5,200 to nearly 7,500. Child placement agencies struggled to recruit homes for the additional children. Social workers say that led to an increase in runaways, whom researchers say are vulnerable to sex traffickers, KCUR and The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

The prosecuted runaways include Hope Zeferjohn, who was 14 when she met a decade-older boyfriend while living with her family in Topeka. After a juvenile misdemeanor battery conviction, she was sent to a foster home in Salina, where she was under the oversight of state corrections officials. Her boyfriend found her there, and began prostituting her when she ran away at the age of 15. Zeferjohn, who is serving a six-year prison sentence for aggravated sex trafficking for recruiting other girls for the prostitution ring, is seeking a pardon from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

"I deserve another chance," said Zeferjohn, now 21. "As long as I get hope, I can give hope to people."

Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay said that as "the right hand of the organization," Zeferjohn was responsible for "recruiting, identifying targets, locating and trying to earn their trust" for Long's sex business. He said that she "had to be held accountable."

Brownback resigned in 2018 to take a job in the Trump administration. He declined comment for this story. His successor, former Gov. Jeff Colyer, turned down Zeferjohn's first request for clemency last year, Kansas Department of Corrections records show. Colyer also declined to comment.

Karen Countryman-Roswurm, director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University, is advocating within the legal system for Zeferjohn and 12 other girls who ran away from the Kansas Department for Children and Families custody or juvenile detention in recent years and ended up incarcerated for crimes related to human trafficking. Countryman-Roswurm said the girls should not have been charged because they were victims who were under the control of a sex trafficker.

The situation of Zeferjohn and girls like her has angered some lawmakers, including Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat, who said law enforcement should instead focus on the men paying for underage sex because "they're the problem." Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Republican from Galena, said his "heart breaks for these children."

Benet Magnuson, executive director of the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which has filed a class action lawsuit against DCF, said problems in foster care are linked to steep cuts to social welfare programs. Data tracked by Kansas Appleseed show the state during Brownback's administration lowered annual expenses for food stamps by $142.9 million, cash assistance by $38.9 million and a child care program by $32.6 million. Changes to the budget in 2016 reduced annual funding for community mental health centers by $30 million and lowered Medicaid reimbursement rates by 4%.

"After pushing those families over the edge," Magnuson said, "the state takes custody of those kids, and after taking custody of the kids subjects them to a dangerously extreme placement instability, denies them mental health services, and then when those traumatized kids fairly predictably run away, Kansas criminalizes them.

"To say it shocks the conscience would be an understatement. This really strikes at the moral foundation of who we are as a state."

Vickie McArthur, clinical director for reintegration, foster care and adoption at Saint Francis Ministries, which provides child placement services in Kansas, said the rapid influx of children created instability because organizations like hers struggled to recruit and keep long-term homes. That led to children bouncing among emergency placements.

"You do that for a little while, and the youths say: 'We're done. We're not doing this,'" McArthur said. Those who decide they're better off on their own and run away often resort to trading sex for a place to sleep, she said. "That oftentimes can lead to, 'OK, for you to continue to stay here, now you need to exchange sex with my friends, and they'll pay me.'"

Tanya Keys, deputy DCF secretary in charge of addressing the runaway issue, said a special response team assigned to prevent runaways — and find children who do flee — is helping. In April, the number of runaways was in the 90s. Now, the number of children in state care who can't be accounted for is below 60.

"Certainly, we do feel the gravity and want all children and youths, young persons, to feel safe and that they have access to the support they need," Keys said. "We do feel the responsibility and understand the responsibility."