Addressing the conference on child sex trafficking are, seated l .to r., Dr. Sharon W. Cooper, FBI agent James J. Wines, Homeland Security agent Rod Khattabi and Chief States Attorney Kevin T. Kane. Standing are DCF directors Tammy Sneed and William Rivera, along with social work supervisor Stefania Agliano. ()
In advance of Super Bowl XLVIII in the New Jersey Meadowlands, flight attendants were told to be on the lookout for underage girls traveling to the Northeast. The concern was that the teens were being imported by human sex traffickers to be peddled as prostitutes for those attending football’s biggest game.
The problem of child prostitution exists wherever large groups of men congregate, including near military bases and “man camps” of oil drilling operations, as well as at major sporting events, William Rivera, of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF), told a large conference on sex trafficking in Hartford on Jan. 29.
But while the problem might not be difficult to identify, it has proved to be challenging to remedy.
While Rivera acknowledged that “this is really something that child welfare agencies should be in the center of,” the message conveyed at the all-day conference at the Hartford Convention Center to more than 200 social workers, law enforcement officers, school administrators, judges and prosecutors was that all three branches of government need to join forces to deal with child sex trafficking.
“One of the reasons I’m excited today is that in this room we have that combination,” said Rivera. “We need to get the right players in the room in order to address this problem.”
Speakers included child-abuse specialists, criminal investigators, lawyers and a keynote speaker who fought her way back from heroin addiction and “the life” of street prostitution. Together, they wove an often shocking narrative, detailing from a personal viewpoint the factors that are making child sex exploitation a front-burner issue.
“We’re talking about modern-day slavery here,” said Stefania Agliano, the DCF social work supervisor who trains police and other first-responders.
“There are more slaves in the world today than in any time in history,” she said, with between 100,000 to 300,000 children subject to abuse in the United States sex trade.
DCF is usually publicity shy, protecting its clients and a sometimes-bruised public image. But under the administration of the current commissioner, former Supreme Court Associate Justice Joette Katz, the agency is openly leading a charge against child sex trafficking in Connecticut.
“We at DCF have a very pronounced responsibility to address the problem,” Katz said. “One of the themes that will emerge is that our partnerships with the other branches of government, judicial and legislative, have been critical to our efforts.”
The General Assembly has recently passed important laws, Katz said, that “ensure law enforcement refers minor victims to [DCF], rather than arrest any exploited youth for prostitution.” The legislature also adopted enhanced criminal penalties for adults trafficking in minors, she said, as well as a framework for prosecution.
Since January 2008, DCF has tallied 198 child sex trafficking cases in Connecticut. The conference speakers emphasized the need to abandon notions that child prostitution is a choice and a victimless offense. Like statutory rape, the child’s consent is not even legally pertinent.
For this crime, a “perfect storm” of alarming trends has come together. The glut of online pornography, social worker Agliano noted, is shaping the way young boys and girls learn about sex. Patrons of porn sites who search for “young teen” or “barely legal” are evincing a desire to have sex with children, she said.
Agliano, who educates Connecticut police and DCF social workers about child sex trafficking, has one other unusual duty: She’s supposed to view Internet porn at work, and she has been shocked at what is freely available online.
Viewing the screen through splayed fingers, Agliano said it’s impossible not to feel like a witness to a criminal assault.
Disturbingly, some 80 percent to 90 percent of online pornography is produced by amateurs, including “point-of-view” porn that cuts off faces and “further dehumanizes this very human act,” she said. In the competitive race to push new limits, younger participants and painful acts are becoming commonplace, Agliano said.
But with 30 percent of online usage devoted to porn, she said, it’s hard to believe viewers’ thinking patterns aren’t being affected.
In another dimension, diet and other factors are causing a dramatic lowering of the age of puberty. Girls are beginning to develop breasts at age 9, instead of 13 or 14, noted Dr. Sharon Cooper, a North Carolina child development and forensic doctor. “If they look young, they probably are,” she said.
To make matters worse, although children’s bodies appear to mature earlier, the same can’t be said of their brains, Cooper added. Mentally incomplete youngsters, drawn into “the life” on the streets, can be set on a short course that ends with disease, suicide or murder.
Hard Won Wisdom
The day’s keynote speaker, Audrey Morrissey, 51, is the associate director of My Life My Choice, an organization that works with vulnerable 12- to 18-year-old girls in Boston.
Morrissey drew on her own teenage experiences of disruption, peer pressure and misplaced goals. She had moved to Boston from Philadelphia, and as the light-skinned new kid in school, became a target of bullying. Eager to belong, she said that as a young girl she wanted to be “more black, more ghetto,” and actually yearned for the day when she could pick up her own welfare check.
What started out as dreamy ideas of financial security and an apartment with her boyfriend turned into a predatory relationship. He wanted her to turn to “the life.” The first time she got into a car with a john, totally inexperienced, he flashed a badge. The officer said he wouldn’t arrest her if she gave him oral sex. At that point she burst into tears, and didn’t have to go through with it.
At the beginning, Morrissey said, she felt popular and in demand, good at what she was doing.
As the AIDs epidemic increased, health department vans would pass out free condoms. That, Morrissey said, was to help prevent the white, upper-middle-class johns from becoming infected.
“The top profession was lawyers,” Morrissey said, referring to those who sought to have sex with her.
In the course of her work, she was sometimes raped, once at the point of a sawed-off shotgun. As the years on the street and heroin took their toll, she realized she had to change to save herself.
Healthy, clean and “fabulous” for the past 20 years, Morrisey now helps develop programs to help teens avoid reliving her experiences, working with more than 200 girls each year.
The tools to combat this problem, whether domestically or internationally, boil down to prevention, protection and prosecution, said Tammy Sneed, the DCF’s director of Girls’ Services. In 2009, the U.S. State Department added a fourth “P” to this list: the need for partnerships with other governments and nongovernmental organizations around the world to combat a criminal enterprise that does not stop at borders.
Rod Khattabi, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told attendees that “no one agency can do it alone.” He said the adage, “if you see something, say something” pays off here. Interstate truck drivers, he said, are learning to be on the lookout for signs of sex trafficking at rest areas.
The underlying theme of the day was society’s gaps, and children falling through them.
Nationwide, state social welfare agencies have been slow to intervene. Child sexual exploitation cases can be viewed as criminal matters by social service agencies, and as a agency matter by law enforcement. The offenses have both civil and criminal components. The typical case is three-sided, involving pimps, johns and child victims. Because jurisdictional and semantic gaps are easy to find, one message of the conference was that all branches of government need to close ranks if the problem is to be effectively addressed.
Throughout the conference, 15 Connecticut judges paid close attention to the proceedings. Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll, with a history as a criminal court judge, commented: “It’s hard to imagine that anyone got into this [sex work] on a completely voluntary basis.”
As the specter of this new form of slavery is dawning in public consciousness, states are responding with a variety of techniques to put more pressure on the customers, and to treat the women less like perpetrators. In some jurisdictions, prosecutors intentionally neglect to read Miranda warnings to reduce a prostitute’s criminal exposure.
In some states, mug shots of arrested johns are posted online as a shaming technique. Elsewhere johns’ cars used in prostitution are confiscated, and in some jurisdictions the john’s fine is waived if he confesses to his wife and she reclaims the car.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, who spoke on Connecticut law enforcement’s strategies, said that what he’d heard from other speakers gave him a new view of the role of johns. In the past, he said, they were often viewed as parties to question in hopes of identifying prostitution ring leaders, “and then we’d let ‘em go.”
Especially in sex trafficking cases involving minors, catch and release is now a wholly inadequate response, Kane said. Taking a tougher approach with johns could start to curb demand, he said.
“They’re the ones who create the market. It’s a very insidious business,” Kane said.
“Furthermore, where the abuser is appropriately punished, the fact that the government reacted to that wrong, helps the abused person. I’ve really seen that help sexual assault victims,” Kane said, “when somebody official recognizes the wrong that was done to them.”
Thomas B. Scheffey is the former senior writer for the Connecticut Law Tribune. He is now a member of the newspaper’s editorial board.