KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Janine Montgomery remembers her painful teenage years in a suburban, middle class upper Midwest home.
“I come from a good home, a very loving home,” she insists.
But new to the town, and lonely, she admits she was vulnerable. So when a 13-year-old supposed “friend” talked her into going from a mall to a house party to meet her “twenty something” boyfriend, Janine balked, then went.
Once there she felt uneasy. Older men, smoke in the air, porn on a TV. And the so-called boyfriend coaxing her into a back bedroom for small talk. Where did she live? What about her family? Pets?
“He got every bit of information out of me that he needed to hold over my head for the next four years in that short conversation,” she recalls. “And then he raped me.”
And so began four years under his control. His threats, and eventually an addiction to drugs, essentially made her a slave to his ring of women he controlled.
“There were house parties like the one I was raped in, where men were there and I was expected to service them all night long. And my trackers always had me home before school the next day.”
By day a daughter, sibling, student. On many nights, essentially a prostitute. Experts call it grooming, and Janine was a textbook case.
“There’s a misconception in the greater Kansas City area among adults. They think that sex trafficking means a white van pulls up on Troost, grabs a girl off it and disappears,” said Russ Tuttle of the metro based “Stop Trafficking Project.”
“That’s not what’s happening.”
Instead Tuttle and other experts say, what’s happening is criminals who prey on young vulnerabilities, in everything from shopping malls, to schools, to yes, social media.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, the average age of entry for a child victim in the United States is right where Janine was when she entered: 13 to 14 years old.
The United Nations says it’s a $9.5 billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone.
“I think it’s happening in every city in the country,” said Cynthia Cordes, an attorney with Husch Blackwell, and founder of the firm’s Sex Trafficking Law Clinic.
In 2006 as an assistant U.S. attorney, Cordes helped launch the Human Trafficking Rescue Project in the Western District of Missouri. She gathered various federal, state, and local agencies to outline the new effort aimed at stopping human trafficking in the Kansas City area. She had a hunch it was happening. Most law enforcement at the time, did not.
“While we might be able to make an occasional case out there, that it would not necessarily be something that would justify a large unified continuous effort by the law enforcement agencies,” remembers Chris Budke, then a special agent for the FBI. “Well, I was wrong.”
Wrong, because after the first few cases broke, and got media coverage, more tips, leads, and witnesses stepped forward, leading to even more cases and prosecutions. The task force was off and running by late 2007, and became the top prosecutor of sex and labor trafficking cases in the country according to Cordes.
“We have victims coming out of Johnson County. We have victims coming from really out of all the areas in the community.”
Cordes joined Husch in private practice in 2013 and helped launch the clinic, which now provides free legal help to human trafficking victims nationwide. Lawyers in the firm volunteer their time.
Budke retired from the FBI and joined her as an investigator.
Meantime, Tuttle spends his time talking to schools and parent groups to warn them of the dangers that lurk out there and the signs to look for. Following a recent presentation, about a dozen teen girls lined up to talk to him.
“And everyone of those 12 girls had some story of being in the grooming process.”
That’s the process of befriending, gaining trust, and then using coercion in the form of threats, even violence, to entrap the victims.
Janine managed to escape when she “aged out” by graduating from high school. She eventually moved on, and now is married and living in the area.
She too, tells her story, to help others, and to warn all:
“Trarfficking is no respecter of persons. It can happen anywhere.”
Kansas City, she is asked?
“Kansas City, absolutely.”
During FOX 4’s investigation, the various experts we spoke to identified signs parents, educators, or caretakers can look for to identify possible human trafficking on children and teens:
* Changes in behavior including disappearing for lengths of time
* Mood swings
* Eating disorders
* An older person entering their life as boyfriend, girlfriend, or just as a friend
* Changes in appearance and fashion, use of make-up to look older
* Expensive gifts provided by an older stranger
* Unexplained injuries or bruising
* Drug or alcohol addiction perhaps fed by traffickers
Here are some links to resources that can help you learn more about human trafficking and help prevent or report the crime: