Officials urge unified effort against child sex trafficking

Hartford — A Connecticut girl was sexually abused by her biological father at age 2 and removed from her home by the state Department of Children and Families.

By age 9, she had been raped by her adopted father and was once again removed from the only home she knew.

"By 14, she was out on the streets, prostituting," said Stefania Agliano, a social work supervisor from DCF.

Presenters at a forum on sex trafficking of children Wednesday told stories meant to spark outrage and action among the audience of nearly 300 people at the Connecticut Convention Center. The state has documented 198 cases of domestic minor sex trafficking in the past five years, and those, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy pointed out in his introductory remarks, are just the cases that came to light.

Most of the 198 victims, who were 11 to 18 years old, were runaways who had been involved with the child welfare agency at some point in their young lives. Commissioner Joette Katz, referring to the victims as "our kids," called on the judges, prosecutors, social workers, lawmakers and law enforcement officers in the audience to work with the agency to prevent children from being sexually exploited for commercial gain. No new state money has been allocated to fight the problem, but legislators have passed new laws with tougher penalties for those who purchase advertising for commercial sex acts involving people under 18 and those who pay for sex with those under 18.

The most compelling testimony Wednesday came from Audrey Morrissey, associate director of an organization called "My Life My Choice," and a survivor of sex trafficking. She was in "the life" from ages 16 to 30, starting from a street corner in Boston's red-light district, known as the Combat Zone, and moving "up" to a local strip club when her pimp went to jail.

"I had finally found a world in which I belonged," said Morrissey, now 51. As a child living in the "hood," she didn't fit in as a light-skinned black woman whose parents owned a three-family home. Her mother was not the nurturing type, Morrissey said, and she was bullied at school. She lost her virginity at 14 to a boy who told her not to come back to his house if she would not have sex, Morrissey said.

"I literally felt my childhood draining from my body," she said. A month later, she was pregnant. By 16, she said, her daughter's father, whose cousin was a pimp, talked her into selling her body, saying she would do it if she loved him and that they could use the money to get a car and apartment.

By 26, Morrissey was pregnant again and addicted to heroin. By 30, pregnant with her third daughter, she went into treatment and left "the life." She said she couldn't count the number of times she was raped and robbed.

Today, Morrissey works with young girls to keep them out of prostitution. After Wednesday's program, she was en route to a DCF group home to speak with children in the agency's custody.

"This has been going on since before your time, my time," Morrissey said. "The only difference is, we're aware of it and trying to take steps to help these children."

The presenters referred to prostitution not as "the world's oldest profession," but as "the oldest form of oppression," and said women and children are criminalized and sometimes have their mugshots published in newspapers while little attention is given to "johns" who patronize them.

"The demand drives the supply," said Agliano, who estimated that on any given night in the United States, 100,000 to 300,000 children are having sex with five to 25 customers.

While most victims are girls, presenters said that boys are also involved in sex trafficking. Dr. Sharon Cooper, a forensic pediatrician, said children who are victimized are in a "perfect storm," with a society that is not shocked by explicit sexual matter and pervasive online bullying, sexual violence, drug addiction and social network recruiting. They come from homes where there is physical or psychological abuse, family dysfunction, alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness and incarceration, she said. They also come from all parts of the country, including cities, suburbs, rural areas and Indian Country. Many use illegal narcotics to cope.

Girls are reaching puberty earlier, Cooper said, and their brains are not fully developed until they are in their 20s. The average age for boys who see their first adult pornography is 11, and "the neurons in their brain is convincing them that they are experiencing what they are seeing," she said.

"When a child sees (him or her) self only as a sexual object, it is easy for them to be manipulated," she said. Pimps recruit from homeless shelters, hubs of transportation, jails, street corners, villages and through sexually oriented businesses, including, sometimes, the hip hop music industry and reality TV.

The "finesse pimp" lures children under the guise of romance or by promising a better life, she said. The "gorilla pimp" abducts victims or purchases them from another pimp and controls them through intimidation or violence.

The "life" often results in a number of illnesses and early death, Cooper said.

Officials from the FBI, state police, Department of Homeland Security and Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane stressed that a unified response is necessary to stop sexual trafficking of minors. In December, local, state and federal agencies teamed up to investigate sexual trafficking on the Mashantucket Pequot reservation and charged a Providence woman with transporting a 16-year-old girl to the Two Trees Inn in Ledyard to have a paid sexual encounter.

k.florin@theday.com

As a matter of policy, The Day does not allow commenting on stories about sex crimes. Since this story is not about a specific crime but about a topic that affects Connecticut as a whole, we have decided to allow commenting.

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