Washington –- With members of Congress worried that states have been lax in reporting and addressing the problem of children being sold for sex, Connecticut was pointed to at a Senate hearing Tuesday as a potential model.
“You all in Connecticut seem to have figured out how to put together a comprehensive strategy,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said to Joette Katz, the head of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families.
Katz responded that “shining a light” on the issue is the best thing you can do to combat child sex trafficking.
And her agency has tried to do that by training teachers, police and hospital staff on how to identify victims and get them to refer them to DCF so the victims get the help they need. Also this month, Connecticut lawmakers boosted the penalties for those found to be intentionally buying or selling children for sex.
During the last few years, 130 girls and boys in Connecticut have been identified as child sex slaves — nearly all of them foster children in DCF custody.
The commissioner was invited to testify at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on legislation Wyden has introduced, with the support of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and other Senate colleagues, aimed at fighting the exploitation of children. Blumenthal, with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, started the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking in 2012.
There is evidence that selling children for sex has become a booming criminal business, generating an estimated $32 billion a year.
Wyden’s legislation, the Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act of 2013, would require state child welfare agencies to report the number of children identified as victims of sex trafficking and immediately report the identity of any child missing or abducted from care.
But Katz said the legislation would not go far enough. She said it would not include reporting requirements of minors who are exploited in the workplace nor provide states with money to fund programs that fight the sexual exploitation of children.
Katz testified that Connecticut has approved several laws in recent years aimed at ending the exploitation of children.
One requires law enforcement officials in the state to refer minors to her department for help instead of arresting them for prostitution.
“From prostitute to victim,” she told the panel.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, agrees.
“Raped and abused children should not be treated as criminals,” he said.
“These girls are too young to give consent… It is simply unacceptable that state child welfare systems are failing to serve these girls,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
The state also has a call-in phone number for police and victims to contact the department for services.
Katz said the most powerful weapon against child sex trafficking is the dissemination of information about the plight of the victims and how they are ensnared.
“Once you hear about it you never forget, and you want to know what you can do to help,” she said.
Included in her testimony for the panel were the stories of two children in Connecticut sold for sex.
The U.S. government estimates 200,000 American children are trafficked each year. Most are runaway and homeless youth.
“One out of every three teens will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home,” Katz said.
One change to state law Katz has been unsucessful in getting legislators to pass is to allow police to go after publishers that run advertisements for escort services that leads to children being sold for sex.
“There need to be more finanical consequences… The publisher that publish these newspaper ads do so with completely impunity and I question that quite frankly,” she told the finance panel.
Asia Snow, the program coordinator for exploited children in Maryland and a victim of the child sex trade, testified about being forced out of her home when she was 16 because she failed to pay her father rent. Living on the street, Snow said she fell under the control of an abusive pimp.
For three years Snow said she was sold to strangers, in hotel rooms and even at the racetrack. She said she was beaten often, especially when she became pregnant and tried to flee.
She lost the baby, but fortunately a policewoman helped protect her from her abusers and remake her life.
“I did not wake up one morning and say, “I want to be a prostitute’,” Snow said. “No girl chooses to be a slave. Yet girls like me are the face of modern day slavery in America.”