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Kathryn Xian is waging a war against pimps.
She’s arguably the state’s most visible human rights activist, and over the last several years has positioned herself in the public eye as an expert on how best to tackle sex trafficking in Hawaii.
But Xian, who heads the nonprofit Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, is also a polarizing figure whose tactics have many questioning the effectiveness of her crusade. They’re concerned she’s actually hurting those she’s trying to help.
She’s become so divisive, in fact, that she’s on the verge of losing her position on a statewide task force made up of service providers and law enforcement officials who have a shared objective of locking up traffickers and rehabilitating victims.
Critics complain she uses her position to denigrate those who disagree with her. She’s even attacked people who are on her side, comparing them to the same pimps and predatory traffickers they all want to put behind bars.
Some on the task force say this creates unnecessary friction among those who are supposed to be on the same team. They also say it’s stopped meaningful progress in combating human trafficking in the islands.
Civil Beat interviewed more than a dozen government officials, service providers and advocates working on sex trafficking issues in Hawaii, many of whom shared a similar view of Xian. While some spoke freely about Xian and her brand of advocacy, several would speak only if their names weren’t used, saying they feared retribution and ridicule.
As one individual put it: “I refuse to enter into a battle with a certain person who is getting so much exposure and potentially damaging the cause as a whole.”
But Xian dismisses these concerns as little more than petty insider politics, saying it distracts from the real issue of taking down traffickers and protecting their victims. She’s also proud of her role as an agitator, especially in a state where social norms don’t always support people who speak their mind.
“There are very few advocates around town that will actually shake the trees every once in awhile to get people to talk about these things,” Xian said. “If I give an agency or a person a hard time it’s for a good reason. This town is full of people who won’t say anything about anyone or any agency, to a fault, even when misconduct or incompetency occurs.”
Those who have worked with Xian say she has a flair for the dramatic. It’s one of the reasons she gets so much media attention. Xian has billed herself as a spokesperson for the anti-trafficking movement in Hawaii, and has developed a cozy relationship with the local press, who rarely quote any other source on the issue.
She raised her profile even more when she ran for Congress in 2014. Even though she only collected 3 percent of the vote, the opportunity gave her a platform to share her views with a wider audience.
“She’s very passionate and sincere in what she does, but she’s not real good at playing with others.”
Xian frequently appears on TV, radio and in newsprint as an advocate for sex trafficking victims, and she often has harsh criticism for the police and prosecutors who use prostitution charges as leverage to go after pimps.
After Honolulu prosecutors recently dismissed sex assault charges against 16 massage parlor workers, Xian was interviewed by multiple media outlets, including Hawaii Public Radio, KHON2 and the Associated Press. She called the arrests “embarrassing” and “abusive.”
Xian is an adept user of social media to get many of her views in the public realm, particularly Facebook and Twitter, where her screeds have reverberate among thousands of people.
Just last week Xian blasted Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro for opposing a sex trafficking bill that Gov. David Ige said he intends to veto. Kaneshiro wasn’t the only high-ranking law enforcement official to oppose the measure — which Xian helped draft. Several, including Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, have argued that the bill is confusing and would make it more difficult to prosecute pimps.
Xian took out her frustrations online, drawing similarities between prosecutors and the pimps they’re supposed to put away.
It kinda makes you wonder when Honolulu prosecutors and pimps band together to kill a sex trafficking bill, doesn’t it?
— Kathryn Xian (@KathrynXian) July 3, 2015
While the comment resonated with Xian’s followers — some of whom responded on Facebook with comments of “disgusting,” “despicable” and “makes my stomach turn” — it was just one example of many that have been off-putting for those who have worked with her.
“She’s very passionate and sincere in what she does, but she’s not real good at playing with others,” said Judith Clark, executive director of the Hawaii Youth Services Network. “She doesn’t seem to tolerate opinions that do not agree with hers, and that can make it difficult to work collaboratively with her because she doesn’t compromise.”
Clark pointed to legislation introduced in 2012 that, if passed, would have granted immunity to minors arrested on prostitution charges. It also would have expanded mandatory reporting requirements for various professionals, including physicians and psychologists, who encountered child abuse and neglect.
While Xian supported the measure, Clark’s agency testified against it because it would have taken away a child’s right to confidential medical care.
In the case of underage sex trafficking victims, Clark said it would make it less likely that sex workers would seek treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and impede on the ability of street outreach workers to build relationships with homeless youth who might be engaged in survival sex.
The bill ultimately died. But the fact that Clark’s organization opposed it was enough for Xian to accuse the Hawaii Youth Services Network on Facebook of “promoting child prostitution.” The post has since been removed.
“None of us who disagree with Kathy think that human trafficking is a good thing,” Clark said. “Many of us are actively working to provide services to the victims and to prevent people from becoming victims. But we disagree with some of her approaches and we disagree with some of the facts that she uses.”
Xian’s difficulty in working constructively with others has made it harder for policymakers to support her initiatives, which ultimately hurts the people she is trying to help.
Even state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland says she had to play referee when she formed a working group to develop Senate Bill 265, the sex trafficking bill now in the governor’s veto pile.
Chun Oakland said there were times when Xian would become “too passionate” and she would have to step in to make sure the other stakeholders didn’t become upset. But the senator said Xian’s input was helpful in the process nonetheless, and that she still wants to see SB265 become law.
But concerns over Xian’s in-your-face way of pushing through policy changes is causing other advocates to reconsider whether she is hurting more than she is helping.
Xian is a member of the Hawaii Coalition Against Human Trafficking, which is made up of dozens of victim-services providers, federal, state and local law enforcement officials, and prosecutors from all four counties.
Some of the government agencies include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office and the Honolulu Police Department.
Several non-governmental organizations are also on the coalition, including the Sex Abuse Treatment Center, the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii and the Susannah Wesley Community Center, which provides social services to new immigrants to Hawaii.
The coalition was formed in 2006 for the purpose of bringing these groups together to work collaboratively to fight both sex and labor trafficking.
The idea was that law enforcement and service providers would be able to share resources, help each other with training and ensure that victims were receiving the help they needed no matter who they encountered on the streets, whether it was a police officer or a social worker.
Another goal was to identify, investigate and prosecute trafficking cases, something Hawaii struggled with for many years.
Xian has been involved with the coalition for nearly a decade, either through the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery or her other nonprofit, Girl Fest, which aims to prevent violence against women through arts and education.
But now the head of the human trafficking coalition, Deputy Attorney General Kevin Takata, wants the group to consider whether Xian can still be an effective member. Xian has been openly critical of one of the coalition’s members, Hoola Na Pua, for its plans to build a facility to house sex trafficking victims.
Takata wouldn’t discuss his concerns with Xian with Civil Beat, but on June 26 he sent an email to the commission members notifying them of an upcoming meeting at the end of July and setting out the agenda. One of the topics was whether Xian’s nonprofit, the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, should remain a member.
“I unsuccessfully attempted to meet with Ms. Xian to discuss her derogatory and false comments about members of the Coalition,” Takata said. “Disagreements are bound to occur and through competing opinions and points of view, we can learn and broaden our perspective. However, such discourse must be truthful, respectful, and part of an earnest team effort to combat human trafficking. That is why the Coalition exists.”
Xian responded to the email within minutes, defending her actions as well as the comments she made about some of the coalition members on her personal Facebook page, saying it was “entirely unethical for the task force to police anyone’s personal freedoms.”
“I have attempted to expose serious safety issues committed by a member of this task force and instead (of) further inquiry and investigation, I receive accusations of lying.”
“I have attempted to expose serious safety issues committed by a member of this task force and instead (of) further inquiry and investigation, I receive accusations of lying,” Xian said. “This is a clear testament to the fact that this agency in question as well as the leadership of this task force will deal with accountability issues with denial and cover up.”
She called Takata’s email “completely offensive, libelous and defamatory” and said that it would not be a best practice to kick her off the task for exposing “incompetence or misconduct in the best interest of victims.”
Takata declined to elaborate on the concerns about Xian, saying it would not be fair to her or the coalition to comment before the July 31 meeting.
Xian, however, had no qualms talking about her disagreements with Hoola Na Pua, a nonprofit on the task force that is working to build a long-term residential facility for trafficking victims.
Xian has publicly criticized Hoola Na Pua’s plans, saying among other things that the staff doesn’t have the expertise to deal with sex trafficking victims and that its location is problematic because it can be easily found by pimps. There are nearby roads and bus lines that Xian says make it easy for kids to run away.
Jessica Munoz, president of Hoola Na Pua, declined to comment on Xian’s characterization of the organization.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Xian said the coalition is “completely ineffective” and contended that it has been that way a long time.
Xian also laughed at the idea that her personality and abrasiveness could somehow derail any progress the coalition might have made, pointing out that she rarely attends meetings.
“They don’t need me to collaborate with them to progress forward,” Xian said. “They don’t need any one agency to collaborate with them to progress forward. In a weird way that gives me a lot more credit than I thought I had at the task force.”
She added that any discussions about her personality are nothing more than a distraction and retaliation for speaking out of turn.
“The real issue is not about me. Who cares about me? I don’t matter,” Xian said. “Focusing it on me is not doing anybody justice. I don’t give a shit about my persona but really the safety issues that arose cannot be swallowed up by this stupid character assassination.”