(WICHITA, Kan.) — It's something you see in movies or crime dramas, but you'd never think it was on Wichita's streets.
But Wichita is ranked as one of the top 5 cities in the US for human trafficking. Experts say teens leave Kansas (sometimes willingly, sometimes by force) and are then dropped hundreds of miles away. They are drugged and stripped of their money and identification, and then used for sex.
A movie due out next year highlights the trend -- and puts the spotlight on a Wichita woman who is working to stop the sexual exploitation everywhere.
It's not a Hollywood movie based on fiction. It's a documentary, highlighting a Wichita woman. "Sometimes I think it's just easier to turn our faces and say this doesn't happen here," said Karen Countryman Roswerm. "Because it's gut wrenching to believe that it does."
She works with teenage runaways - and many told the therapist they were kept as sexual objects. In her 12 years of working with them, she's heard dozens of heartbreaking stories. She read one 14 year old's words:
And she said, 'I guess I feel like nobody understands me. I feel like people look at me, and talk to me, like I am dirty and nasty. But I didn't do anything wrong. I am not a prostitute. I am just a girl. I am just a kid.'
The statement goes on to say a pimp jumped out in front of the teen, threw her into his car, and drove her away. The then-12 year old was threatened to do what she was told, or she and her grandmother would die.
Stories like that prodded Kansas City based filmmaker Susan Cook to action in a movie titled Hope Road. "The whole point of the film," said Cook, "is to film warrior women who are trying to stop this, exposing the johns, exposing the pimps.
Countryman - Roswurm said its an uphill battle to get people in Wichita to consider sexual exploitation could be happening on the city's streets. "To believe that people who look just like you and I can be trafficked," she said, "and people who look just like our Dads or our husbands can be the johns, or the traffickers."
Local authorities estimate as many as 400 teens from Wichita are at risk of sexual exploitation. That's the size of a graduating High School class in Wichita. And if you think it doesn't happen in this city --- it already has.
Back in 2005, Wichita Northwest High Football standout Bobby Prince Jr. pleaded guilty to using two girls from Wichita for the sex trade in Oklahoma City. "Kansas is an originating state, Wichita is a originating city, meaning that traffickers come to Wichita and take our girls, or boys, elsewhere."
Countryman-Roswurm said Oklahoma and Texas are prime destinations for teens taken from Kansas, thanks to the I-35 highway. "We're right in the center, we have easy access to highways. We're kind of a byway of just, kind of, get the young people, and get them out of here."
The movie focused on Wichita, in part for the reasons above, and in part because of the Anti-Sexual Exploitation Roundtable Countryman-Roswurm founded. The movie suggests solutions - and the main one is for community members to work together to identify the problem, raise awareness, and try to stop it from happening.