Hope Joy Zeferjohn was missing from the Kansas Capitol on the day her family was posing for pictures with the governor.
It was May 22, 2015, and then-Gov. Sam Brownback was signing a proclamation for Family Reunification Month. Zeferjohn’s parents and siblings stood behind him, literal poster children for Brownback’s efforts to return children to their homes from foster care.
But Zeferjohn, 16, was in state custody in Salina, already under the violent control of a man who trafficked her for sex.
A year after the photograph was taken, Zeferjohn was charged in June 2016 with 10 felonies, including aggravated human trafficking. She was 17. Despite federal and state laws that bar prosecuting children for prostitution, Zeferjohn is serving a nearly six-year sentence in the Topeka Correctional Facility and will spend a lifetime on the state sex offender registry.
“I deserve another chance,” said Zeferjohn, now 21, who is seeking a pardon. “As long as I get hope, I can give hope to people.”
The Kansas Sentencing Commission says human trafficking charges, whether for men or women at any age, are rare and are often pleaded down to other lesser crimes.
But advocates for trafficking survivors say misguided criminal charging, and the resulting plea bargains reached in cases like Zeferjohn’s, are more common than state records indicate.
Along with Zeferjohn, a dozen other young women are facing criminal prosecutions after being placed in state custody, running away, and falling prey to sex traffickers while they were minors, said Karen Countryman-Roswurm, director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University.
“We’ve waged war on the very population that we said we were going to serve,” she said.
Prosecutors defend their case against Zeferjohn, saying she victimized other girls.
“How do you deal with somebody like Hope Zeferjohn?” said Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay. “If you give a pass to everyone who does the sort of things Miss Zeferjohn did? I don’t know that society actually wants that to happen.”
A freckle-faced tomboy
Hope Joy Mae Zeferjohn was the second child born to Terry and Melody Zeferjohn. It was Terry’s third marriage, and he had two other children from previous relationships. He would eventually have six with Melody.
A Topeka cab driver for 20 years, Terry Zeferjohn died in September 2018. Obese and on disability, his home was violent and poor, and he was always looking for income, said Stacey Kelly, one of his ex-girlfriends and the mother of one of his children.
Kelly remained close to the family and is Hope Zeferjohn’s godmother. She remembers Terry telling his daughters: “You bleed, you breed,” meaning when they came of age they should start having children.
“The only reason that they had children was so they could get more help, any sort of assistance,” Kelly said.
Still, Hope Zeferjohn remains devoted to her parents.
“It could be good sometimes,” Zeferjohn said of the family home. “Sometimes it can be hectic because of all of us kids. I feel like they raised us as best they can and they did a pretty good job of it.”
As a child, Hope Joy lived up to her name, Kelly said, describing her as a sweet, freckle-faced tomboy who liked to be outside.
Zeferjohn was just 14 when her older sister brought 24-year-old Anthony “Angel” Long to the home. Long had a record, having been charged in 2013 with domestic battery, assault and criminal threat against an ex-girlfriend.
Terry Zeferjohn welcomed him as a friend, Kelly said, adding that Long often stayed overnight.
In January 2014, police arrived at the home in response to a call about a fight between Hope and another one of the children. Officers discovered neglect and a failure to send the kids to school.
“When the police came into the home, it was full of feces, full of trash and clothes everywhere. Roaches were out in the daytime because they were so infested,” Kelly said. “And they had horrible, horrible, horrible bedbugs.”
The Kansas Department for Children and Families arranged for Kelly to take three of the girls. Zeferjohn, then 15, was sent to an “out-of-home placement” in Salina, her sentence for a misdemeanor battery charge. She was sentenced in August 2014 to 16 months in the custody of the Department of Corrections, in the juvenile offender program.
“It looks a lot like foster care,” said Randy Bowman, a DOC spokesman.
Zeferjohn graduated from high school and bought her first car while in state custody. She also got pregnant and gave birth to her son, Tye, in March 2015.
The system ‘failed me’
Then Long showed up in Salina. He found Zeferjohn in early 2015 by tricking authorities into giving him her location.
“For me, it failed me. That’s how I feel,” Zeferjohn said of the state system. “It allowed Anthony to find out my address, where I was staying, by pretending like he was my father.”
Zeferjohn and Long had a relationship that soon turned abusive. She uses his two different names to describe his two sides.
“I loved Angel, OK, when he treated me good and everything,” she said. “And then when he became all rude I was like, ‘Where is the one I love?’ That’s a different Anthony. Some people put up a different side for you to fall in love with, but it’s not the real them.”
He began to take videos of them having sex, which he sold, Zeferjohn said. He controlled every detail in her life.
“I was like the prisoner and he was like a warden,” she said. “Coming to prison, it’s not no big adjustment to me, which is pretty bad. I had no choice but to obey him."
Long brought Zeferjohn back to Topeka, where, according to court documents, he forced her to recruit other girls for his prostitution business, sometimes through Facebook. Long ran the operation from a family member’s home, Zeferjohn said.
Kelly remembers Zeferjohn saying she was the “house mother,” cleaning, cooking and keeping the other girls in line.
“(Hope) started prostituting and bringing home money,” Kelly said, “and if she didn’t give her money to him, it was going to be hell to pay.”
The hell included beatings — Zeferjohn said they were so severe she miscarried twice. Long threatened to hurt her son and anyone close to her if she disobeyed, she said.
“He destroyed my life,” Zeferjohn said. “He tried to kill me twice and I tried to think about it like, ‘I need to go, I need to get out,’ but I’m stuck in this whole situation.”
Ultimately, Zeferjohn and Long traveled to New York, where Long had family. There, she said, she was arrested for shoplifting at a Walmart. When police discovered that she was a runaway from Kansas, she was returned to the state.
In June 2016, Zeferjohn was charged as an adult with 10 felonies: aggravated human trafficking; conspiracy to commit rape; conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sodomy; indecent solicitation of a child; electronic solicitation of a child; aggravated intimidation; and criminal threat. She also was charged with two misdemeanors: endangering a child and contributing to a child’s misconduct or deprivation.
The charges stem from when Zeferjohn recruited a 14-year-old girl she met while living in a foster home, court documents show. Hope introduced Long to the girl through Facebook, where Long was using a false identity. Long offered to let the girl live with them in exchange for sex and threatened to kill her if she told police, court records say. The girl reached out to Zeferjohn, who “ordered” her to submit to Long, court documents say.
In another instance, Zeferjohn recruited a 15-year-old girl by offering her drugs, which Long supplied, requiring both girls to have sex with him as payment, court documents show. Long took photos of the girl and told her they were for “johns,” according to court documents.
Kagay, the district attorney, said the 15-year-old girl reported this to police, and Long was arrested. Later, Zeferjohn reached out to the girl and connected her back to Long, who was out of jail. Court documents say Long and Zeferjohn retaliated several times, including once forcing the girl to go to Junction City, where she was sold to a man and made to stay in a motel room for a weekend where she earned $6,000 for Long.
Victim or predator?
In April 2017, Long was sentenced to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted aggravated human trafficking, indecent solicitation of a child, electronic solicitation of a child and four counts of sexual exploitation of a child.
As “the right hand of the organization,” Kagay said, Zeferjohn was responsible for “recruiting, identifying targets, locating and trying to earn their trust” for Long’s sex business.
“She had to be held accountable,” Kagay said. “She actively recruited and allowed minor children to be sexually abused, to be prostituted.”
That sort of role is not uncommon, said Yazmin Vafa, co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls, a human rights group that focuses on gender-based violence.
Vafa said Zeferjohn served as what’s called a “bottom girl,” a term used to describe “young women who ascend to a position of power and are at the top of the exploitation hierarchy, where they are often relied upon by the trafficker to assert order and authority among the other young women who are being victimized.”
Kagay said the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office was fair to Zeferjohn given that she victimized at least two other girls, minors who weren’t charged with crimes.
Prosecutors dropped nine of the 10 felonies and two misdemeanors she originally faced, and Zeferjohn assisted in Long’s prosecution. She pleaded guilty to one charge of aggravated human trafficking. That helped reduce her sentence from a possible 15 years in prison to nearly six years, Kagay said.
Zeferjohn also was sentenced to prison time because one of the victims asked that she be incarcerated, Kagay said.
“I have no doubt that between the two of them, Anthony Long is much more culpable and he also paid a much higher price,” Kagay said.
If he ever is released from prison, Long must register as a sex offender for 25 years. As part of her sentence, Zeferjohn will spend a lifetime on the registry.
“I think you started out as a victim in this case,” District Judge David Debenham told Zeferjohn when he sentenced her in August 2017, just a few days after she turned 19.
“You crossed the line,” Debenham said, “at some point in time.”
’You deserve what you get’
Since 2000, federal and some state laws have specified that anyone under 18 who performs a commercial sex act is considered a victim of sex trafficking. But advocates for sexually abused girls still face a “cultural battle,” Vafa said. Advocates’ rallying cry is: “There’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”
“So many of the young girls that we deal with on a day-to-day basis are really seen as bad girls, or complicit in the exploitation they’re experiencing,” Vafa said. “There’s still a great amount of victim-blaming going on.”
That is the bias at play in Zeferjohn’s case and 12 other cases in Kansas, said Countryman-Roswurm, the director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking, which offers education, training and technical assistance to survivors. The girls were runaways from DCF or the juvenile justice system, wound up under the control of sex traffickers, then were charged as criminals when they were actually victims, she said.
In interviews with KCUR, three of those young women said their experiences were similar to Zeferjohn’s. At some point during their progression through the foster care and criminal systems, social workers and law enforcement officers turned on them, they said, speaking on the condition that they wouldn’t be identified.
“I’m still looked at as a perpetrator,” said one, a 17-year-old girl who has been in and out of the juvenile justice system since she was 10. “I’m still looked at as my (criminal) charge. And it’s hard to put yourself in that victim setting when everybody’s pushing you to ‘You’re a perpetrator and you deserve what you get.’ ”
An analysis of the Kansas Public Offender Registry by APM Reports shows convictions of girls in cases like Zeferjohn’s are extremely rare. A review of Shawnee County District Attorney data ranging from 2015 to March 2019 shows Zeferjohn was the only person prosecuted and convicted for trafficking in that county.
But not all juvenile offenders appear on the sex offender registration website because Kansas law allows a judge, in some instances, to keep a minor’s case from being made public. The Kansas Sentencing Commission says human trafficking charges, whether for men or women, minors or adults, are in the single digits and often pleaded down to other crimes.
Countryman-Roswurm said girls like Zeferjohn struggle in the legal system because of stereotypes about victims of sex crimes. Rather than being beaten-down little girls who welcome rescue from law enforcement, she explained, the reality is some girls grow up in tough environments and don’t attach to anyone because of so much mistreatment. So these girls — she prefers “survivors” — take control of their situations and appear hardened. They have a “streetness,” she said, that makes them look to first responders as if they are perpetrators.
“In trafficking, part of that lifestyle as a whole, you don’t just stay in the role of the misbranded perfect-worthy victim,” Countryman-Roswurm said.
When those girls get processed through the criminal justice system, advocates said, prosecutors frequently offer plea bargains because they don’t want to invest the time and expense of taking their cases to trial. Lawyers, family members or others convince survivors to plead guilty to lesser charges to avoid the risk of prison time if their cases do go to trial, Countryman-Roswurm said.
“The greatest injustice in America is (being) poor, lower-class,” she says. “You’ve been in custody and you take a plea.”
Second shot at a pardon
In May 2015, then-Gov. Brownback, a Republican, used his photo op with Hope Zeferjohn’s family to tout a 7% increase in reunification of families to “a safe and loving home,” as a DCF news release said.
KVC Kansas, the foster care contractor to DCF, also put out a news release with the Zeferjohns’ picture. The agency quoted one of its social workers saying reunification of the family “promotes stability in the child’s life and eases the burden on the state to care for them.”
The request for a family for the event came from Brownback’s office, said Jenny Kutz, a spokeswoman for KVC Kansas, and KVC chose the Zeferjohn family.
“We chose the family because they met the criteria of recently reunified and they were able to participate in the photo within the short notice given,” she said.
But things quickly returned to the way they always had been at the Zeferjohn home, and within six months the children were back in foster care, Kelly said. Kutz wouldn’t comment, citing a federal privacy law.
Brownback resigned in 2018 to take a job in the Trump administration, serving as ambassador for international religious freedom. He declined comment for this story. His successor, former Gov. Jeff Colyer, turned down Zeferjohn’s first request for clemency last year, Kansas Department of Corrections records show. Colyer also declined to comment.
Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, said she would consider Zeferjohn's new request for a pardon.
“The story of Hope Zeferjohn is a sad one,” Kelly said in a statement to KCUR and The Topeka Capital-Journal. “I will consider every clemency request I receive after a full process of developing facts and with input from those affected, but more importantly our state has a structural criminal justice problem that needs to be addressed."
Zeferjohn deserves a pardon because she was forced “to do things that would otherwise be unimaginable to you and I,” said her attorney, Vicki Smith. “She was a child. She was a victim. This is just a matter of human justice.”
Countryman-Roswurm, pro bono attorneys and other advocates are also trying to work within the legal system to resolve the legal problems for the 12 other women who have cases similar to Zeferjohn’s.
Efforts to change state laws are also underway at the Kansas Legislature. Last year, two bills were introduced that call for setting aside convictions and records in hopes of helping young survivors of the sex trade. The bills got stuck in committee, said Benet Magnuson of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit social justice group, but advocates hope to bring them up again this year.
Asked if the agency did enough to help girls like Hope, DCF Secretary Laura Howard said in a statement that continuous and improved efforts are needed to prevent and reduce human trafficking, recover runaway kids, connect families and keep children safe.
“Clearly, there were significant breakdowns in the system under the prior administration, and we know more needs to be done to protect children like Hope,” Howard said. “The agency is currently ramping up its ability to learn and institute more effective strategies and partnerships needed to prevent and address human trafficking.”
Kelly said she is ready to work with the Legislature to "revise our approach to incarceration so that we can be smarter about who we send to prison and for how long."
"My administration is determined to do more to change the focus from punitive to rehabilitative programs as a way to ease the pressure on our prisons," she said.
The earliest Zeferjohn could get out of prison is Aug. 26, 2021, when she will be 23. She lost custody of her son, Tye, who was adopted.
She says she feels the need to apologize for what Long did to all the families affected, including hers. She hopes speaking up and showing strength will help other victims in similar situations.
When she gets out of prison, Zeferjohn said, she wants to try to get her son back, and she wants to open her own restaurant, a bakery, that she would dedicate to her mom and dad.
“I really would like to see people have hope in doing something with their life and getting their life back in order,” she said. “When I got locked up, after that adjustment, I just started getting my life back together. It feels great that I can say that.”
TUESDAY: In day two of the series, we report on the growing number of runaways from the Kansas foster care system and what is being done to help these children.
This story is part of a partnership between KCUR and The Topeka Capital-Journal, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in collaboration with APM Reports, the investigative reporting unit of American Public Media.
Peggy Lowe is a reporter at KCUR. She’s on Twitter @peggyllowe.
Sherman Smith is a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He’s on Twitter at @sherman_news.
Geoff Hing of APM Reports contributed to this story. He's on Twitter at @geoffhing.