Kristen Powell entered the justice system for the first time when she was 13 years old after she ran away from home to escape a difficult situation. Once, she left her 72-hour hold with an older girl she’d met at a children’s home, and unwittingly entered into a violent and abusive circle of sex trafficking. Kristen was penalized and charged because authorities wanted her to testify against the person who victimized her.
“Before I even got my check money was being taken out. And then when I got my check, I had to make a payment.”
System Impacted Individual
Q & A
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Tell us about yourself.
KRISTEN: My name is Kristen Nicole Powell. I'm 24 years old and the first time I entered the juvenile justice system was because I was trafficked, and I was placed into the juvenile detention facility because of my victimization. I was a runaway, and I was like 13.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What happened that set these events in motion in your life?
KRISTEN: The first time I ran away was at 12 years old, and every time I ran away I got caught and they would take me to this place called the Wichita Children's Home here in Kansas, and basically what they do is they leave you there for 72 hours with a police protection custody order, and then after 72 hours you're released back home to your parents or your guardian with what they call a safety plan. It was just basically like whatever issues I was having at home with my dad, they would try to address those issues with the plan. And then when we go home that was supposed to be the thing that protected me, that plan or that piece of paper.
So that happened a couple of times, and then the last time I was at the children's home I met an older girl. I was like 13. I just turned 13 and she was about to turn 18, and she said that if I ran again I could come with her and her baby daddy.
So I was being released from the children's home to my dad again, and when I was walking out of the facility we started arguing, and I walked the other way and I went and met up with that girl. And that’s basically how I got trafficked.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Can you explain trafficking to people who may not know what it is or how it happens?
KRISTEN: So, I ran away with her, and I was there maybe like two days, she approached me and said that I needed to like figure out how to help make money. So I was like, "Okay, what do we need to do?" And that's basically when she explained to me what she did, which was prostitution.* So she had told me to just call her pimp and have him pick me up at QuikTrip. QuikTrip is a gas station. I didn't really know what was going to happen. I'd never been in that type of situation. I was still a virgin at that time, so I like had no idea what I was getting myself into. After I got picked up by her pimp, basically I got raped, and then from there, he sold me to other tricks. I think I was on the run with him for a month.
*I used this word because for a long time that was the word that was used to describe me and my situation and it was the normalized way to describe what happened to me. As a teenager, I could never process how I felt about myself because of how I was labeled by my peers and the system growing up. After getting out of the system and working on my healing I have realized how demoralizing the words prostitution and prostitute are and these are not the right words to describe my experiences.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How did these events lead to you ending up in the juvenile justice system?
KRISTEN: In the system, you stop being a victim when you stop doing what they want you to do. When you stop answering their questions, when you stop being interrogated, you then become a criminal.
When the police found me I didn't really get help. They interrogated me. I was 13, so I was young. They took me down to be questioned for a long time about what had happened to me, and then from there they took me to do a rape kit, and then after I did the rape kit they took me into the juvenile detention facility and they booked me with three counts of prostitution.
And then, from there I had to wait for like the court processes and stuff like that, and then eventually they wanted me to testify against my trafficker, so that's how my prostitution charges got dropped.
I was put into the foster care system because of what happened to me, not because of my dad.
After they dropped the prostitution charges I didn't have any more interaction with the juvenile justice system until I was 16. That’s when I got a criminal damage charge, but I still was in the detention facilities all the time because I had a “no run” order.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What’s a “no run” order?
KRISTEN: So here in Kansas when you're in foster care a judge can say, "If you run away again I'm going to put this ‘no run’ order on you and if you violate my order then I can hold you for six months in the detention facility or a secure facility." Every time I got put with the ‘no run’ order, of course, I ran away, so I spent a lot of time in the detention facility just for running away.
One time I ran away and they couldn't figure out how to hold me in the facility, so they held me for a material witness warrant because I still had to testify against the trafficker. And I ran so I violated that warrant, so now they had a right to hold me because I ran, I guess. It's always been a way to like keep me in jail or like keep tabs on me as long as possible.
I feel like they knew that I was going to run no matter what because my ultimate goal was to age out. Like I never said, "I want to go home with my dad." They told me I couldn't do independent living because I was a trafficking victim. So the only freedom I saw was being 18.
It didn't bother me until I got older. I didn't have time to process it as a kid, because I always had to figure out what my next move was– where I'm going to run if I'm going to get caught. Like, that was my life as a teenager.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What did it feel like to be denied independent living based on being victimized?
KRISTEN: My caseworkers and my judges were always using me being a human trafficking victim as an excuse to not let me have anything I wanted. So I wasn't allowed to have a cell phone while I was in custody because I was a victim of trafficking. And they said that basically, that could put me at risk because I could talk to traffickers. I wasn't allowed to have a Facebook. I wasn't allowed to go to Independent Living. Even when I lived with my grandparents in Pennsylvania, I wasn't even allowed to go to my friend's houses unless they had a background check.
If you act like the perfect victim or you follow all the rules, then you could probably get more support. But if you act out, if you run away, if you do any of the stuff that they tell you not to do, then basically they're going to come after you any way they can. And then when they find you, all they do is put you in jail.
If you go to therapy, they'll most likely try to get you therapy through that Child Advocacy Center. So everything you say to your therapist can be reported to the Exploited Missing Children's Unit. And when you run away, they have all of your conversations and all of that stuff. So it makes it easier for them to find you. So it's very hard to participate in the services when you know they're going to be used against you.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: When was the first time you encountered fines or fees associated with the juvenile justice system?
KRISTEN: I was in a secure care facility in Newton. That's the place where they could send you after you violate your ‘no run’ order. It's called secure care. And it's like a locked house where the windows are plastic.
And I went there, and I got in trouble, and I destroyed the whole facility. And then I got other people to help me. So they said I was the instigator of the situation. And because of that, I got charged with $5,000 worth of property damage. And that was my first juvenile offender case. And I also got charged with three assault charges against the staff. But I never touched the staff. So in my plea, they dropped the charges. I never paid that when I was a juvenile. I didn't pay that until I aged out.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: When did you first pay fines or fees from those charges?
KRISTEN: I think the first time I noticed it was when I got the collections taken out of my check. So I had a job at WSU, Wichita State University. And when I was working there, I had worked part-time, and I only made $10 an hour. So one day I got one of my checks and it was way smaller than what I normally had made. So I had to call HR and figure out what was going on. And that's when I found out that the collections for my juvenile charges were being taken out. And that's when I found out that it was $5,000 still.
I originally thought when I got charged that all four of the people that were involved were going to have to split up the total cost of the damage. But I somehow got stuck with all of the costs.
Around the same time, when my garnishment started coming out of my paycheck, I had signed a plea for diversion with the adult system. Well, first of all, to get on diversion, you have to pay upfront before they even accept you. So I had to pay that fee. And then once I signed the plea deal for diversion, there's a list. And it tells you all of the fines that you have to pay and the date you have to pay them by. And that's a stipulation of the diversion. So I think altogether, it was almost $2,000 for my diversion. And I was still getting the garnishments taken out of my paycheck. So I was having to make payments out of my paycheck for the diversion. And then also the garnishment was being taken out at the same time.
Before I even got my check money was being taken out. And then when I got my check, I had to make a payment.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What is diversion?
KRISTEN: Diversion is kind of like a plea deal. The DA could work out a plea with you. And the plea would say, "If you do good for this amount of time, then we'll drop the charges. Or they'll show up as deferred." So my limit was 24 months. So I had to do good for 24 months. Not catch any new charges, not have police interactions, and then take random UAs.
So the diversion hotline is what they have here in Wichita. And every single day, even on the weekend, you have to call to see if your code is called to take a UA. A UA is a urinary analysis. It's a pee test to see if you have any drugs in your system.
Whenever you call and they say your code, you have to go up to the lab and you have to take your UA. And it's $20 a UA. And it could be multiple times a week. If you go to the lab and you don't have your $20, then you would be refused for taking your drug test just because you can't afford to pay for it. A person can have a positive drug test for not having $20.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How much do you estimate you’ve paid over the years?
KRISTEN: I think I was 18 when they started taking restitution out. But I think it took five years to pay off. I don't know how much total. I know it's been a lot and I'm still paying for stuff.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What were some of the other difficulties you’ve faced trying to break free from the system and move your life forward?
KRISTEN: I had a lot of stuff I had to break myself free from after I got out of the system. All of my friends were people that I met in jail or I met on the run or I met in group homes. I didn't even have one single friend, and I probably still don't to this day, from when I was younger, that I grew up with that wasn't in jail or that wasn't in trouble.
So, it was just hard to relate to people and to find that different way of life. When I aged out, I was literally by myself. So, it just took a lot. But, I think the people that I had were the ones that made the biggest difference or impact on my healing. So, like I said, my older mentors, they taught me a lot about different ways of life. Like there was certain stuff that I never would've even known about, like being a mom and how to talk to your kids gently and not always be yelling at them. That's what I grew up with
Another problem when I got out of the system was my relationship. So, I had a best friend when I was growing up and we rushed into a relationship that neither one of us should have been in. That's the person I have kids with now. So, he was somebody I met in jail too. So, it took a long time for me to get away from those cycles.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: You mentioned your children. How has parenthood been for someone with your history?
KRISTEN: Yes, I have 3 kids. I would say parenthood has been a part of the healing because it's taught me how to be more patient. It's taught me how to love more. It's taught me how to not be angry because kids do a lot of dumb stuff, and you could get mad about all this stuff. It also taught me about myself, I guess.
Once I got out of the system, traditions were a big thing for me. So what do we want our Christmas traditions to be? What do we want to do for Easter? What do we want to do for birthdays? What is our family's thing? Because I didn't have any of that or I didn't really know any of it. So the first Christmas with my oldest son was crazy. We did everything that you can think of.
Now we don't do all the extra stuff anymore. So it was definitely a learning experience, too, because I could go overboard a lot with stuff.
I feel like it just taught me a lot about myself, my family, what do I want to be, or what do I want my kids to be? How do I want to raise them? I don't want to be one of those parents that's super micromanaging. That's not me. I feel like it just taught me how to love better and freely and guess made my heart softer.
I know my family loves me, but I don't feel like we have a connection or a bond. I don't really feel the love all the time, I guess. So for me, with my kids, I don't want them to doubt whether or not I love them, I want them to know I love them.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: As someone impacted by fines and fees, what are some of the ways you’d like to see the system change?
KRISTEN: I think your jail time is enough. I mean, most people that get fines and fees it's because of probation, parole, or diversion. So most people that have charges will sit in jail, waiting to find out what's going to happen with their case unless they bond out. So I feel like just that time that you sit waiting to find out what's going to happen to you, or even if you get prison time, that should cancel out the fines and fees.
The system already messes up people's lives enough. Like there's enough trauma, there's enough lack of humanity already going on. And you hear all the stuff I'm talking about, and the one thing that made a difference in my life was having that mentor that loved me. And like now, like how I'm trying to be with my kids, I think people miss that a lot.
So when I talk to social workers, I tell them it's not always a systematic response. Like actually have a conversation with the young people, figure out what's going on with them, figure out what they want. There are different outlets for us to get our trauma out and to work on our healing.
I feel like all of the responses that the system has are just so structured and punitive, and that's where I feel like the fines and fees also come in. That's not going to make a difference for the system, for the people that are in the system, or for the victims that are victims in the cases. The fines and fees don't do anything.