The Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence says pimps often approach teenage girl runaways within just 48 hours of running away. Pimps go where they know runaways congregate—the mall, the movie theater, the train station—and then they lavish attention on the most vulnerable.
From there, pimps convince young girls—and, sometimes, boys—to sell their bodies.
It’s gross, and it works, and until now, it’s gone mostly unnoticed.
Stemming from a law passed last year, Connecticut has started training people to spot signs of human trafficking, including a session last month run by the state’s Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team in collaboration with St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center.
“That’s why St. Francis has taken a pro-active approach, to better educate our medical staff, to better identify” potential victims of human trafficking, said Marisol Feliciano, violence and injury prevention program coordinator at St. Francis Hospital. “We need to know how to set protocol to offer services.”
Feliciano said signs include (but are not limited to) an older, well-dressed man traveling with a significantly younger woman, unexplained and extravagant gifts (including cash) to a juvenile, and/or signs of abuse. Young people from any socio-economic or racial group can be victimized. Thirty percent of the time, Feliciano said, family members are the traffickers.
The training is part of a public-private partnership that includes state agencies as well as Marriott International, Quinnipiac University School of Law, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the Connecticut Lodging Association, and Grace Farms Foundation, a New-Canaan-based non-profit. At Grace Farms, anti-human trafficking efforts are led by Krishna Patel, the organization’s justice initiative director and general counsel. Patel comes with 15 years of experience in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Changing laws to reflect a juvenile victim’s unique needs follows a nationwide trend. Connecticut has joined 42 states that in the last five years have changed their laws to focus on prevention of juvenile sex trafficking, which ranks with illegal drug and gun trading as one the world’s largest criminal activities.
But juvenile victims of sex trafficking don’t need criminal records. They need services and safety.
Last year, Feliciano said, at least 190 cases of minor sex trafficking were reported to the Department of Children and Families’ Careline, the 24-hour phone number (800-842-2288) for reporting suspicions of abuse or neglect. Those numbers are, most likely, low. Feliciano anticipates an increase in the numbers as people learn to recognize the signs of human trafficking.
As with other initiatives meant to address social ills, the state’s budgetary crisis makes this work challenging. According to the state Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Council report for 2016, plans to partner with University of Connecticut School of Social Work were stymied by the state’s budget crisis, but organizers continue to seek funding to study the scope of trafficking in Connecticut. Michael Bolton Charities is a contributor. This year, TIP council has launched an ad campaign aimed at the demand side of human trafficking with slogans such as “I’m not the kind of man who uses violence against women and children. What kind of man are you?”
A change in the law has resulted in a change in language.
“We shy away from calling this prostitution,” Feliciano said. “We are not going to call them that” because doing so criminalizes the juvenile victims.
A few years ago, one girl, who asked that her name not be used, was growing up in a Hartford house where drugs and abuse were common. She ran away more times than she could remember, but the day after her 14th birthday, she was sitting at Hartford’s train station when Rick (not his real name) offered to bring her to his home so she could shower. In her case, it wasn’t even 24 hours.
You know how this ends. Over time, Rick groomed and coerced the girl to have sex for money—though he called the johns “dates.”
When she was 16, the girl reached out to a neighbor, who helped her. She moved in with a distant relative in Mansfield, caught up on her schooling, and enrolled in college. She expects to graduate from the University of Connecticut in May. She’s thinking of a career in social work.
Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven. She can be reached at email@example.com.