Jarell Sanderson of New Britain made sure his two 14-year-old prostitutes knew he had a gun, that he had already beaten one “murder rap,” and that they would be shot if they told anyone about his profession.
This fear instilled in Rosa and Jill — names given to them by Sanderson, who found the girls after they had run away from a shelter for abused children — is the strongest defense a pimp has in dodging prosecution.
With victims unwilling to testify, a federal district attorney is often left scrambling.
“No one is going to admit it outright because they are so terrified of their pimp,” said Krishna Patel, the assistant prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Bridgeport. “I know for a fact I have trafficking cases that I will not be able to charge anyone. It’s really hard to prove a case without a willing victim… .”
Many of the victims are already in the care of the Department of Children and Families because they have been abused and don’t have the confidence to confide what’s happening in their lives to adults.
“Admittedly, most of these girls being trafficked are our girls — shame on us,” said DCF Commissioner Joette Katz. “It’s too easy for a john, a pimp, a creep — call them whatever you want — to come in and shower them with the attention they crave. It’s a problem.”
But although DCF has identified 89 children who have been sold for sex across the state since 2009, the federal prosecutor’s office has sent just a handful of pimps to jail during that time.
Sanderson’s was the rare case that actually was prosecuted. In January 2011, after entering a guilty plea to multiple counts related to the sex trafficking of children, he received a sentence of more than 25 years in prison, for which he must serve a minimum of 15 years.
The state level
Fear may be the main obstacle to bringing charges against individual pimps, but interviews with law enforcement and judicial officials also reveal a more systemic problem: There is no coordinated approach in the state to dealing with the sex slavery trade in young women and children — a trade that is international in scope, but that can be as local as a Connecticut beach, bus station, or mall.
The State Police does not have a sex trafficking unit, but does investigate related complaints, such as someone trying to entice a child on the computer, department spokesman Lt. Paul Vance said. In a big case, the state police would investigate any leads that might tie into child sex trafficking and bring in DCF to assist, Vance said.
And DCF itself is launching an initiative this fall to train local police departments, school districts and hospital staff on how to identify exploited children. DCF officials are asking police departments to refer these children to their agency rather than arresting them and funneling them into the criminal justice system, with its limited range of services.
In other words, DCF is asking police to treat them as victims, rather than criminals.
State and local police rely heavily on federal authorities to pursue these cases, but there has been relatively little focus on child sex trafficking by the state’s prosecutors. Investigators generally come across these cases inadvertently, while investigating other crimes, said Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane.
Echoing frustrations expressed on the federal level, Kane and other officials also speak of how difficult these cases can be to prosecute.
Kane also pointed to his limited manpower, noting that his office has been busy dealing with violence in the cities this summer.
He said, however, that his office is planning to hold some sessions in the coming months to train police officers, prosecutors and investigators to identify child sex slaves.
A waiting game
In the past four years, a single case involving child prostitution has been referred to the Waterbury Police Department.
But that doesn’t mean that was the city’s only instance of child prostitution. DCF says that five girls from Waterbury in 2009 and 2010 confided to their social workers or to staff at local nonprofit organizations that they were sold for money.
DCF offices in New Haven reported that in those same years, they knew of 14 girls who had been sold for sex. And during that same two-year period, DCF officials say that social services workers in Milford, Meriden, Manchester and Norwich each reported that they had two cases of child prostitution.
The gap between police statistics and those reported by state social service agencies or nonprofits is not unusual. State and local police lack the resources to actively pursue child sex slavery cases.
“Children who are involved in prostitution are not going to be standing on street corners for us to pick up. With this kind of case, that would be handled on an individual complaint basis,” said officer David Hartman, spokesman for the New Haven Police Department.
“You would have to find that through … word of mouth or on (web)sites like craigslist,” Hartman said.
Do police departments try to verify that girls listed on websites such as craigslist, backpage and CityVibe are really at least 18-years-old?
“We just don’t have those kind of resources. I don’t think you’ll be able to find a single police department that does that,” said detective Peter Morgan, with the Waterbury Police Department’s computer crimes unit.
A spokeswoman with the Hartford Police Department said they have a vice unit that targets child sex crimes. Child prostitution is “something we keep on the radar,” she said.
Local police departments say they rely on parents and families to spot the warning signs that their child is involved in the trade. They also rely on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to report suspicions that a child in their area is being marketed online for sex.
The national center is also a crucial source of information to the FBI.
Child prostitution is “definitely occurring” in Connecticut, said Tim Kobelia, an FBI agent in the state who works cases involving children. But “it’s hard for me to say if it’s getting better or not.”
A stumbling block
Before 2006, prosecuting pimps was the sole responsibility of the federal government. Then, state lawmakers armed local police with the authority to investigate and charge adults involved in the child sex trade.
The state’s Judicial Branch, however, doesn’t know how many arrests and convictions have happened since then because it does not track that information.
Morgan, the detective in Waterbury, said that despite the new law, his department would face long delays if it tried to investigate any online posting for girls advertised as being available in Waterbury.
These websites “are not going to provide us with any information short of a court order — that’s the industry standard,” he said. “And then once we have (a court order), there’s no time limit” by which the websites must identify where the source of the posting.
Morgan said the turnaround time for his department to get specific information about who wrote an ad from a site such as craigslist or backpage.com is one to three weeks.
“It’s frustrating. Very frustrating. When someone is being forced into prostitution, it’s too long [to wait],” he said.
The turnaround time for getting this information for the federal government, Patel said, is much quicker. Because the federal government has a grand jury process, companies are compelled to report this information much faster.
“It’s shocking Connecticut doesn’t have that. I don’t know how you’re supposed to do these cases without it,” she said from her Bridgeport office. “The pimps are going to move [the women] if you have to wait.”
Staca Shehan, the director of the case analysis division at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said that several websites are beginning to flag content and report advertisements they suspect involve minors. In 2010, sites such as backpage.com and craigslist reported 900 postings. By 2011, they reported 4,000 nationwide.
Katz, the DCF commissioner, said it should be the companies’ obligation to monitor their sites, and that they should be held responsible if a posting leads to a child being raped.
“It should be publishers looking at this. That’s my opinion,” said the former Connecticut Supreme Court judge.
A bill that would hold publishers legally responsible for these postings failed to gain traction in the legislature this past year.
A glimmer of hope
In every case where federal prosecutors have been able to send a pimp to jail, the key has been the posting of advertisements online.
In the case involving Rosa and Jill — the two 14-year-olds from the Hartford region — their information and pictures were posted online, enticing potential customers to call. According to court testimony, Jill’s first call came on a night in July 2009. Scared and reluctant, her friend in the hotel bathtub bleeding from having sex the night before, Jill told her pimp that she did not want to do it. Her pimp then threatened her, court documents say, and said if she wanted food and a place to stay, she had to comply, which she did.
Over the next few days, several more advertisements for the two girls were posted online.
But the shift to online advertising over the past two years may have a silver lining. It may help prosecutors build a case without having to find a victim willing to testify.
“All the evidence we need may be online,” Patel said. “It’s a new generation of pimps coming online. And hopefully, we’ll be there to catch them.”
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