Rep. Stephanie Clayton wants to refocus the way Kansas handles teenage girls who are exploited for sex.
An investigative series published this week by The Topeka Capital-Journal and KCUR explores the prosecution of 13 girls who ran away from the Kansas foster care system or state custody and became victims of human trafficking.
Clayton, a Democrat from Overland Park, has a different target in mind.
“If we’re going to be spending that money on prison bed space, I don’t know, gosh, how about we start incarcerating the johns?" Clayton said. "Let’s incarcerate the complete and total garbage people that are having sex with 15-year-olds. Because they need to be put away. They’re the problem. They’re terrible people. I have no sympathy for that.”
Advocates for the trafficking victims say the girls shouldn't be charged with crimes because they are minors who are bound to their traffickers with threats of violence. Instead, prosecutors pressured them into plea deals that require prison time and registration as sex offenders.
Lawmakers and others reflected Tuesday on the instability of the foster care system and other information highlighted in the two-day series.
“Whenever I see a story on the challenges of the child welfare system, it’s not surprising — but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing," said Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Alliance.
After former Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011, the foster care population ballooned from 5,200 to nearly 7,500. Child placement agencies struggled to recruit homes for the additional children, leading to an increase in runaways who didn't find the care they needed. On the street, they were easy prey for those who wanted to exploit them.
One of the exploited teens, Topeka native Hope Zeferjohn, said a trafficker found her by telling authorities he was her dad.
"My heart breaks for these children," said Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena. "Our system has failed at the one thing that it is supposed to do, and that is to protect our children. How can we allow a child predator to trick our system into giving them the location of one of our children? What steps have we taken to make sure that this never happens again? These questions have to be answered and have to be fixed."
Brownback in 2015 staged a photo op with the Zeferjohn family to tout his administration's efforts to reunite families. Hope Zeferjohn was missing from the photo because the 16-year-old was on the run and in the violent control of Anthony "Angel" Long, who is now serving a 35-year prison sentence.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the photo op was a typical example of how Brownback's administration operated.
"They were taking credit for things they really didn’t understand, nor did they really accomplish what they were taking credit for," Hensley said. "I think that’s a perfect example.”
Kyle Kessler, executive director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, sounded alarms in 2016 as the Legislature slashed funding for community mental health services at a time when there was growing demand for treatment.
One of the problems with the foster care system today, Kessler said, is the lack of case managers, psychologists, social workers and therapists. Several victims of human trafficking said the foster care system failed to provide the services they needed.
“These are human experiences that are the result of government engagement and some government failures," Kessler said.
Appelhanz said there are changes taking place that could produce better outcomes for children in the foster care system.
Earlier this month, the Kansas Department for Children and Families awarded $13 million worth of grants through the Family First Prevention Services Act, a federal program that matches dollars from the state's investment. The goal of Family First is to support families whose kids are at imminent risk of placement in foster care.
The programs deal with parental skills, substance abuse and other evidence-based services.
“I think that’s good for the future of the system," Appelhanz said. "Certainly, I am doing a dance more than anybody about the fact that Kansas is an early adopter of Family First. At the same time, we have to be mindful that Family First doesn’t solve the problem for the 7,500 kids who are already in the system.”
Legislators also need to invest more in the rates paid to child placement agencies, Appelhanz said.
"I don’t think I know anyone in the state who is too excited about what we’re getting right now," Appelhanz said. "And so if we were to look at increasing rates, that would allow the agencies providing services to hire more social workers. It would allow them to have more family support workers, to offer more of the things that stabilize families.”