State steps up ef­forts to end child sex trade

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jenifer Frank CONN. HEALTH I-TEAM WRITER

In the weeks be­fore Bridge­port po­lice res­cued the teenager from the mo­tel, she had been forced by her pimp to have two tat­toos iden­ti­fy­ing her as be­long­ing to him inked on her face and neck.

She had been given mor­phine and crack. And she had been sold on the in­ter­net, she told po­lice, “to over 50 or 60 dirty men.”

The girl, who was 17 when she was pulled from “the life” Aug. 26, 2015, is one of more than 650 chil­dren and ado­les­cents re­ferred to the state De­part­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies as vic­tims of sex traf­fick­ing since 2008. Nearly one-third of those were re­ferred to DCF last year alone, a re­sult of the state’s ramp­ing up its anti-ex­ploita­tion ef­forts.

“The in­ter­net has com­pletely changed preda­tors’ ac­cess to youth, youths’ vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and the hid­den na­ture of the crime,” said Erin Wil­liamson, sur­vivor sup­port co­or­di­na­tor of Love146, in New Haven.

Love146 is an in­ter­na­tional non­profit ded­i­cated to end­ing child sex traf­fick­ing.

Pros­e­cu­tions of sex traf­fick­ers are also up. Of the 38 since 2006, 10 have oc­curred since Novem­ber 2015, when then Con­necti­cut U.S. At­tor­ney Deirdre Daly formed the Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Task Force.

The group com­bines crim­i­nal jus­tice of­fi­cials and na­tional, state and lo­cal law en­force­ment, col­lab­o­rat­ing with so­cial ser­vice agen­cies, to fo­cus on those who sex­u­ally ex­ploit chil­dren for profit.

Of the 202 chil­dren re­ferred to DCF last year, 75 were 15- and 16-year-olds, and 12 were 11 or 12. One was 10.

The youngest traf­ficked child ever re­ferred to the agency was 2, said Tammy Sneed, who leads its traf­fick­ing ini­tia­tives.

The pro­por­tion of white, African Amer­i­can and His­panic chil­dren was roughly equal last year, al­though, at 37 per­cent, or 74, slightly more white chil­dren were re­ferred to the de­part­ment.

Al­though the vic­tims were over­whelm­ingly girls, Sneed and oth­ers think the lower num­ber of boys—17 boys and one trans­gen­der youth were re­ferred to DCF in 2016—proves only that peo­ple are less likely to rec­og­nize males as tar­gets of sex traf­fick­ers.

In fact, gen­eral in­credulity that Con­necti­cut chil­dren would ever be traf­ficked hurts ef­forts to erad­i­cate it, ad­vo­cates and oth­ers say, not­ing that many peo­ple still see the prob­lem as con­fined to Third World coun­tries and cul­tures.

“The bulk of our work is the do­mes­tic mi­nors, and that’s what peo­ple don’t un­der­stand,” said Brian Si­b­ley Sr., New Haven-based se­nior as­sis­tant state’s at­tor­ney and lead pros­e­cu­tor with the traf­fick­ing task force.

Ig­no­rance and de­nial

The mis­con­cep­tions are com­pounded by most adults’ ig­no­rance of so­cial me­dia, through which the trade is over­whelm­ingly con­ducted.

Not only are vic­tims ad­ver­tised through web­sites—ad­vo­cates say Back­page.com has re­placed Craigslist in pop­u­lar­ity and no­to­ri­ety in this re­gard—but so­cial me­dia, from Face­book to other­wise in­nocu­ous mes­sag­ing apps, gives traf­fick­ers ac­cess to any­one with a cell­phone.

“We’ve seen kids from all over the state be­ing vic­tim­ized: sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies, two-par­ent fam­i­lies, ur­ban, ru­ral,” Sneed said. Many have been in­volved with DCF, she said, but more than 40 per­cent have not.

Traf­fick­ers used to seek young vic­tims at malls or near schools, in parks or fast food restau­rants. But the stalk­ing has moved on­line.

“What [par­ents] don’t re­al­ize is that the cul­ture we used to live in is no longer the same,” said Latoya Low­ery, a su­per­vi­sor in DCF’s Nor­walk of­fice.

Ado­les­cents’ prac­tice of shar­ing per­sonal in­for­ma­tion with ex­pand­ing groups of “friends,” at least some of whom they don’t ac­tu­ally know, makes them ex­traor­di­nar­ily vul­ner­a­ble.

“Preda­tors are start­ing con­ver­sa­tions with 10, 20, 40 kids all at once on the in­ter­net,” Wil­liamson said.

Love146 has cre­ated a cur­ricu­lum ex­plain­ing traf­fick­ers’ tac­tics and help­ing youths learn to pro­tect them­selves, but only about a half-dozen Con­necti­cut school dis­tricts have of­fered it, the or­ga­ni­za­tion said.

A re­lated im­ped­i­ment to stop­ping traf­fick­ers is that their method of lur­ing vic­tims, termed “re­cruit­ing and groom­ing,” is of­ten not seen for what it is. This in­volves an ex­ploiter’s play­ing to a vic­tim’s needs and con­vinc­ing her that he cares for her.

“That com­mit­ment or bond with the traf­ficker … is very, very com­mon,” DCF’s Sneed said.

Af­ter be­ing res­cued, sur­vivors of­ten have long-last­ing and com­plex health chal­lenges, Wil­liamson said. A girl may need to be ad­min­is­tered a rape kit, tested for preg­nancy and sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases. Vic­tims may have been us­ing drugs or al­co­hol to cope with their trauma, or sub­stance abuse may have pre­dated vic­tim­iza­tion, she said.

Post-trauma psy­cho­log­i­cal is­sues may be even more com­pli­cated. “A num­ber have his­to­ries of men­tal health is­sues, some di­ag­nosed, some not. PTSD is real for some of our youth,” said Wil­liamson.

Chal­lenges

Al­though Con­necti­cut passed a sex traf­fick­ing law in 2006, the first state con­vic­tions didn’t oc­cur un­til the leg­is­la­ture tight­ened the law in 2016. In their 2017 ses­sion, law­mak­ers cre­ated the new crime of com­mer­cial sex­ual abuse of a mi­nor and made it a class A or B felony.

A con­victed traf­ficker could get as much as 20 or 25 years, de­pend­ing on the vic­tim’s age.

In Au­gust, Bran­don Wil­liams of Bridge­port, the sex traf­ficker who tat­tooed his 17-year-old vic­tim, was sen­tenced to more than six years in fed­eral prison, fol­lowed by four years of su­per­vised re­lease.

The Bridge­port Po­lice De­part­ment, FBI and the in­ves­tiga­tive arm of the U.S. De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity had worked to­gether on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In 2016, Con­necti­cut be­came the first state to re­quire ho­tels to train em­ploy­ees so they can rec­og­nize traf­fick­ing on the premises and to re­quire them to post sig­nage about traf­fick­ing. Since then, the list of es­tab­lish­ments that must post signs has been ex­panded to in­clude mas­sage par­lors, emer­gency fa­cil­i­ties and other pub­lic places.

A map of sex traf­fick­ing ar­rests in Con­necti­cut dur­ing the past 10 years would show them oc­cur­ring fre­quently at lodg­ing es­tab­lish­ments on high­ways near larger cities, but also along Route 15 and all the in­ter­states.

FBI Spe­cial Agent Wendy Bow­er­sox said, “95 is def­i­nitely one of our hotspots,” from the New York line to the casi­nos.

List­ing es­tab­lish­ments off I-95 at ex­its 35, 36, 39 and 40, Of­fi­cer Michael DeVito of the Mil­ford Po­lice De­part­ment said, “We have a dozen ho­tels in close prox­im­ity. It’s very safe to say that [traf­fick­ing ar­rests] very likely and con­sis­tently oc­cur once a month.”

This story was re­ported un­der a part­ner­ship with the Con­necti­cut Health I-Team (c-hit.org).

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