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    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    Sex trafficking referrals on rise in Connecticut

    NEW HAVEN — The youngest victim of sex trafficking in the state Department of Children and Families' files is 2 years old.

    So far this year, the department has received more than 80 referrals of possible victims of human trafficking in the state, said Tammy Sneed, director of girls' services at DCF. Sneed said she predicts the department will surpass last year's total of 94 referrals by the end of the year.

    "There is a direct correlation with an increase in training and an increase in referrals," Sneed said, referring to the amount of training now available for law enforcement agencies to identify victims of sex trafficking. Referrals to DCF come from schools, families, police departments and hospitals, she said.

    Earlier this month, Connecticut U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly announced the creation of the Connecticut Human Trafficking Task Force, a group made up of officials from multiple service providers, federal agencies, state police and 14 local police departments across the state.

    "Over the last several years it has become increasingly clear that human trafficking, and especially the sex trafficking of minors, this cruel victimization of defenseless young girls and sometimes boys, is a form of modern-day slavery," Daly said at the press conference announcing creation of the task force early this month. "And despite the best efforts of law enforcement, this criminal activity grows apace with the proliferation of the Internet marketplace, where sex with children is bought and sold."

    In the last decade, the U.S. Attorney's Office for Connecticut has prosecuted 20 child sex-trafficking cases, Daly said. Through the new initiative, the U.S. Attorney's Office is taking a more proactive approach to combating human trafficking in the state, Daly said.

    Mike DeVito, a Milford patrol officer, said the task force has created more communication between local and federal authorities and they can share information and resources about cases. Milford police joined the task force because of the city's proximity to the Interstate 95 corridor, which offers many potential hotel stops for sex-trafficking activity.

    Confirming sex-trafficking cases is "not always that easy," DeVito said. Young females are often reluctant to disclose their status as a victim for fear of the potential consequences. In addition, gathering enough evidence to warrant an arrest poses another challenge for law enforcement.

    Given challenges law enforcement faces in identifying and confirming human-trafficking cases, the difficulties in gathering evidence and the reluctance to have young victims testify, not all cases make it to the courtroom, said Erin Williamson, survivor care program manager for Love146, a New Haven-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing human trafficking domestically and abroad. It's almost impossible to say just how many human-trafficking cases there are in a given area, said Williamson, who has spent much of her career tracking human trafficking across the country.

    Fighting human trafficking forces people to "take a deep look at the underbelly of society," Williamson said. And it's not always an easy place to look.

    In a recent federal human-trafficking case prosecuted in Connecticut, Edward Thomas was sentenced to 17½ years in federal prison after a federal jury found him guilty of two counts of sex trafficking a minor and one count of conspiring to commit sex trafficking of a minor.

    Prior to this case, Thomas had been convicted in New Jersey on similar charges. He served 210 days in prison for that crime.

    Because Thomas' most recent conviction came in federal court, he faced a minimum of 10 years in prison. If the minors were younger than 14, he would have had a minimum of a 15-year sentence. If the case was not a federal crime, and he had been tried in a state court in Connecticut, he would have been looking only at a mandatory minimum of nine months.

    During his sentencing in early November, Thomas pleaded with the court to educate people about potential consequences of trafficking minors. He said he did not think people knew how severe punishments could be at the federal level.

    Federal and state minimums used to look very similar, said Krishna Patel, a former assistant U.S. attorney, but the federal minimums have gone through several amendments since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000. The discrepancy in mandatory minimums often leads to trafficking cases being tried in federal court, Patel said.

    For labor trafficking, at any age, the federal penalties are even higher, with the minimum starting at 20 years and increasing to life in prison when the crime includes kidnapping or sexual abuse.

    "There's a lot of talk about a second chance society," Patel added. "I don't know that there's an appetite to increase (state minimums)."

    As in Thomas' case, many traffickers are using the Internet to advertise children and their sex services. Patel said use of the Internet gives the federal government jurisdiction to try these traffickers.

    Since leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office, Patel has dedicated her efforts to the Grace Farms Foundation, which is working to create and share software and technology that helps law enforcement to better track the sexual exploitation of minors online.

    Contrary to what the term suggests, human trafficking does not have to involve the movement of people across national or state lines, Patel said. Human trafficking can occur next door or down the street, Patel said. And, because a minor cannot consent to sex under federal law, the government is not tasked with proving that the minors were compelled to comply with the sex work.

    And, unfortunately, it's more common for pimps down the street to victimize girls in Connecticut, Williamson said, based on her experiences working with victims. She said many referrals for potential victims to DCF and Love146 come from larger cities such as Bridgeport and New Haven, but oftentimes it's in rural areas where human trafficking is underreported.

    "It's easier to hide in rural communities," Williamson said. "I've gone out to all four corners of the state."

    Sneed said that most of the referrals DCF gets on trafficking are related to sex trafficking, but that does not mean that labor trafficking is not occurring in the state. She said she believes law enforcement and the public are not as attuned to recognize or notice labor trafficking so it may be severely underreported.

    "I met him at the mall . I met him at the park . He was amazing . He listened to me . He 'got' me . It's kind of weird because part of me still loves him ..."

    These are phrases Williamson said she hears all too often from victims of sex trafficking. Running away from someone who showed an interest in them, who gave them a sense of purpose when no one else would, is not easy to do, she said. Teenagers everywhere want to feel loved, but in some communities — even here in the United States — "there is no safe place for youth to get those needs met."

    Teenagers "are really willing to string on to anyone," Williamson said. "That's what makes them so vulnerable."

    Trust and relationship-building is essential to making sure the teenager does not resist the exploitation down the road, Williamson said. This also makes victims less likely to report a problem or willing to comply with law enforcement when a pimp is caught.

    "Human-trafficking victims don't often behave the way we expect victims to behave," Williamson said, and are often resistant to trust the systems that have let them down in the past, either because they have also been victims of domestic violence or have suffered through bad situations in foster care.

    Sneed said the majority of cases reported to DCF are young girls, but she believes there is a general under-identification of cases involving boys. The ages on file range from 2 to 18, but the majority are older than 11.

    The adolescents the organization has identified as most at risk are teenagers who have a history of abuse.

    Love146 offers a "Rapid Response" program and a long-term survivor care program for victims of sex trafficking. Williamson is one of two case workers who handle the survivor care program, and right now the organization is getting more referrals than it can handle with limited resources, she said. The Rapid Response program allows them to give immediate care and provide information about other services available for victims.

    Sneed said the most important aspect of the DCF program is providing long-term mentors for survivors. She said the organization seeks to provide a "consistent" adult role model.

    "Every one of these young people are very different," Sneed said. "So there isn't a standard way to respond."

    But perhaps the most important part of the fight against human trafficking is prevention. Sneed said DCF has created programs for schools that focus on healthful relationship building and recognizing the signs that someone may be in danger of being a victim of trafficking.

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