Bill toughens penalties in child sex trafficking cases

Targeting minors for prostitution is about to become a little more difficult for pimps and “johns.”

A bill that would make it easier for law enforcement to prosecute those who sexually exploit children — and increase the penalty for those who knowingly solicit them — is headed for the governor’s desk after receiving a unanimous vote from state legislators.

“In the past, we relied on the FBI for enforcement. This will stiffen the penalties on the local side of law enforcement. This is a very positive development,” said Tammy Sneed, director of girls’ services for the state Department of Children and Families.

With more than 130 children enslaved in this shadowy underworld in Connecticut in the last five years and only a handful of pimps being prosecuted, legislators decided to bolster law enforcement’s authority.

The bill would lower the threshold for prosecuting pimps by adding the words “fraud” and “use of force” to the definition of coercion in human trafficking. “Fraud,” for example, could apply to a pimp who claims to be the victim’s boyfriend and showers her with attention, then a few weeks later, tells her they are running low on money.

“He’ll say something like, ‘How much do you love me? If you love me you’ll have sex with men so we can make money.’ He has a false relationship and exploits her,” Sneed said.

Specifically, the legislation would:

     *  Authorize courts to seize property and assets from convicted pimps that were obtained through the sexual exploitation of a minor.

     *  Raise the penalty for knowingly patronizing an underage prostitute or human trafficking victim to a Class C felony.

     *  Require education about services for victims of sex trafficking, and

     *  Direct the Trafficking in Persons Council to report back to the legislature about further deficiencies in the human trafficking law by January.

“We think it does a lot of really good things to bring Connecticut’s criminal penalties in line with what other states have done,” said Josh Howroyd, legislative program manager for DCF.

Teresa Younger, executive director for the Permanent Commission for the Status of Women, said the bill would be landmark legislation because it was driven through the General Assembly by a bi-partisan group of all 55 women in the legislature.

“Human trafficking is the next level of slavery,” Younger said. “It is a significant issue, not just for women overseas, but domestically. In Connecticut, we need to have the policies in place.”

State DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has made human trafficking a top priority. Sneed has been a key person in the initiative, leading efforts to expand training to help police, first responders, community leaders and hospital emergency staffs to recognize the signs of human trafficking. DCF is also asking police to treat child prostitutes as victims rather than criminals.

The department has also launched community outreach programs, giving presentations and working with the media. 

On a national level, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a New Haven Democrat, along with representatives from New York and Florida plan to host a bipartisan discussion on domestic child trafficking in Washington, D.C., Wednesday. They estimate that 293,000 children nationally are at risk for commercial sex exploitation.