An FBI sting this past summer aimed at cracking down on human sex trafficking discovered 105 children working as prostitutes in 76 cities nationwide. In Connecticut, authorities found three underage girls forced into prostitution.
Even before that happened, state lawmakers were concerned enough about sexual exploitation of minors and human trafficking that in the last legislative session they passed a bill toughening the law and raising awareness to the issue.
The new law, which went into effect October 1, makes patronizing an underage prostitute a felony, vacates a prostitution conviction if the person was a victim of human trafficking and requires the Office of Victim Services, which is under the auspices of the state Judicial Branch, to help spread the word about human trafficking.
State Rep. Gerald Fox, III, who co-chairs the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, said the bill was sponsored by every female member of the House and Senate. It had complete bipartisan support.
“It was a bill that obviously people feel very strongly about,” said Fox. “We’re a small state but a lot of people travel through here. Hopefully it’s something where, with this new legislation, we can reduce the impact of human trafficking.”
Already, the state Judicial Branch has created a poster to try to raise awareness to the issue. The poster shows photos of young women and men and then offers the following message in eight different languages: “Human trafficking is modern-day slavery. If you or someone you know is being forced into work or sex and cannot leave, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center for help…” The phone number is then listed at the bottom of the poster.
The law requires the Office of the Chief Court Administrator within the state Judicial Branch to develop “a concise notice about services for human trafficking victims and requires truck stops and certain establishments serving alcohol to post it in a conspicuous location where sales occur.”
The Office of Victim Services worked on the poster with help from the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, a Connecticut anti-sex discrimination agency, and the Polaris Project, a national non-profit organization that fights human trafficking. “So what we’re really doing at the Office of Victim Services is getting the word out,” said Linda J. Cimino, director of OVS.
So far, 150 copies of the poster have been distributed. Some are in restaurants and some are in other venues where alcohol is served — stadiums, arenas, and even bowling alleys and golf courses.
The new legislation also charges OVS with analyzing the compensation and restitution services provided to victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking in the state, including medical, psychiatric and social services. It must then report its findings to the legislature in the next session.
“It’s pretty traumatizing to be a victim of human trafficking,” said Fox. “People who find themselves in that situation don’t have access to medical treatment, psychiatric treatment, and other types of services.
“We’ll see if there’s ways to help them more,” continued Fox. “We’ll look at what’s out there. Is it sufficient? Are there areas where they could do more to help a specific category of people and see what they come back with in a couple months.”
Then there are the tougher penalties for those who knew — or reasonably should have known — that they patronized a prostitute who was under the age of 18 or a victim of human trafficking. The crime goes from a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison to a class C felony punishable by as much as 10 years in prison.
The law also aims to prevent the prosecution of victims of human trafficking for prostitution. It also vacates such an existing prosecution. Additionally, the new law allows for the forfeiture of property from a pimp who is convicted, similar to the way that the government seizes the assets of drug traffickers.
Most human trafficking cases in the state are handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Due to the government shutdown, statistics on such cases were not immediately available. Most recently in August, Bruce Damico, a former Hartford resident, was sentenced to 10 years behind bars for sex trafficking involving minors.
Kamar James, also of Hartford, pled guilty during the summer to sex trafficking of a minor and faces a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
According to the state Department of Children and Families, since 2008, there have been approximately 100 children in Connecticut who were confirmed as victims of minor sex trafficking. Of them, roughly 98 percent had already been involved with child welfare services in some manner.
Teresa Younger, executive director for the Permanent Commission for the Status of Women, chairs the state’s Trafficking in Persons Council.
In 2004, the legislature created the Inter-agency Task Force on Trafficking in Persons. The original mission was to research the extent of trafficking in Connecticut, as well as determine what services are available to victims and how well-equipped Connecticut law enforcement agencies are in dealing with the problem.
In 2007, by law, that grouped morphed into the current Trafficking in Persons Council. The group was then tasked with how best to respond to victims of human trafficking and funding was provided to OVS to better train law enforcement, state agencies, community-based advocate groups and other providers of services with how to deal with victims.
“Connecticut has been working on issues around human trafficking for 10 years now. We had some of the first laws on the books” in the country, said Younger. “I think now the efforts we’ll need to concentrate on are public awareness and for victims of human trafficking to know what their rights are.”
Now that the poster has been released, Cimino, director of OVS, is hopeful it will raise awareness that sexual exploitation and human trafficking is a problem for which everyone should be on the lookout.
“We know it’s a problem,” said Cimino. “It’s a hard part of the population to identify. Even if one person gets out of the life through this poster, I would be thrilled.”•