Lawrence police work with domestic violence center to prevent and identify human trafficking

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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 worked to fine-tune a longstanding 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 raped her repeatedly 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.

Advocates have asked Gov. Laura Kelly to grant her 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 ‘images for human trafficking,’ you’re gonna get that classic picture,” Pruett said. “There’s a girl, she’s chained. … That’s 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 benefit?”

Natassia Records serves as the Lawrence Police Department’s victim advocate. (Sgt. Drew Fennelly/Lawrence Police Department)

Lawrence police and The Willow are focused on preventing human trafficking from happening in the first place. Their partnership, according to LPD’s victim services coordinator Natassia Records, goes back decades.

Records, 38, grew up in Grapevine, Texas. After serving eight years in the military, she started working as a parole officer and supervising domestic violence and sex offender cases.

In 2019, Records met The Willow’s executive director, Megan Stuke, by chance at a local pool party. Records was taking a break from law enforcement at the time.

“I had a jaded viewpoint on the world when I was doing parole,” she said.

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

The Willow subsequently trained Records as an advocate, and she 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 is committed, and for that person who just needs assistance kind of navigating what to do from that point further,” Records said.

Shelter, help and hope are just three of the things The Willow offers. The center provides transitional housing and support for those leaving an abusive situation, work programs and financial assistance, court services, and community presentations on how to recognize and prevent domestic violence and human trafficking. (Chloe Anderson for Kansas Reflector)

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

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

“It’s a public health concern, because over 60% of women that are homeless identify being homeless because of a domestic violence situation,” Beeson said. “So, we know that homelessness for women in particular is caused by domestic violence the majority of the time.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, community members, LPD staff, and employees at both The Willow and The Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center met on a monthly basis to discuss high-risk cases and gray areas within Lawrence’s Coordinated Community Response Team.

Although the initiative “fell flat” in 2020 because of the pandemic and its lingering effects, Records hopes to work alongside the District Attorney’s Office, Baldwin City Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to implement the Praxis International Blueprint for Safety.

The blueprint would hold every department accountable and allow for more consistent and productive interactions between law enforcement and domestic violence centers.

Records said pop culture, movies and social media often depict human trafficking incorrectly, which prevents people from being able to properly identify it.

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

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Note: Records’ hometown has been corrected in this post.

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