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Lawrence Police works with the Domestic Violence Center to prevent and identify human trafficking

LAWRENCE — In the years following a high-profile murder case, the Lawrence Police Department and the Willow Domestic Violence Center joined forces to help victims of human trafficking.

The two organizations have been working to finalize a long-standing relationship with the addition of a victims’ advocate in 2020.

In January 2014, 19-year-old Sarah Gonzales-McLinn killed Hal Sasko, a 52-year-old Lawrence man who had repeatedly raped her for months. She was sentenced to at least 50 years in prison in 2015. In May 2021, her sentence was reduced by 25 years through an “extraordinary” plea deal.

Supporters asked Governor Laura Kelly for clemency, pointing to evidence that Gonzales-McLinn was a victim of human trafficking who saw no other way out of her situation.

In 2013, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office established the Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Fund to provide law enforcement agencies with training to better identify victims of abuse. Lawrence Police Detective Greg Pruett said the department began participating in this training in 2014.

“If you Google ‘human trafficking images,’ you’ll get that classic picture,” Pruett said. “There is a girl, she is chained. … She is not what we see in human trafficking. Human trafficking is about relationships. How do I know this person? How can I take advantage of that relationship and use it to my advantage?

Lawrence Police and The Willow are primarily focused on human trafficking prevention. Their partnership, according to LPD victim services coordinator Natassia Records, goes back decades.

Records, 38, grew up in Grapevine, Illinois. After serving eight years in the Army, he began working as a probation officer and overseeing domestic violence and sexual harassment cases.

In 2019, Records bumped into The Willow executive director Megan Stuke at a local pool party. Records was taking a break from law enforcement at the time.

“I had a world-weary view when I was doing probation,” she said.

Stuke told Records that although The Willow had dozens of dedicated supporters working at the shelter, they didn’t understand the intricacies of law enforcement.

The Willow later formed Records as an attorney and transferred to the Police Department’s Special Victims Unit in early 2020. Her position allows victims to have a smoother transition from working with law enforcement to receiving care at The Willow.

“They’re great for connecting those dots with services after a crime has been committed and for that person who just needs assistance figuring out what to do from that point on,” Records said.

Willow began in 1976 as the Women’s Transitional Care Center. In 2010 it was renamed after willow, one of the few hardwoods capable of producing a new tree from a broken branch. Today, the organization serves more than 3,500 survivors in Douglas, Franklin and Jefferson counties.

Jessica Beeson, director of operations at The Willow, said the organization’s work to develop a relationship with the police department has been mutually beneficial. By working together to protect the victims, they ensure that no one falls into the holes in the system.

“It’s a public health concern, because more than 60 percent of homeless women identify as homeless due to a domestic violence situation,” Beeson said. “So, we know that homelessness especially for women is caused by domestic violence most of the time.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, community members, LPD staff and employees of The Willow and The Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center met monthly to discuss high-risk cases and gray areas within the Coordinated Community Response Team by Lawrence.

Although the initiative “failed” in 2020 due to the pandemic and its lingering effects, Records hopes to work with the District Attorney’s Office, the Baldwin City Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to implement the international Praxis project for security.

The project would hold each department accountable and allow for more consistent and productive interactions between law enforcement agencies and domestic violence centers.

The records state that pop culture, movies and social media often portray human trafficking incorrectly, which prevents people from correctly identifying it.

“We’re trying to educate the public about what it looks like, without scaring them,” Records said. “But we want to show the reality of them and how they can help.”

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