Her name is Jane and the online advertisement says she just turned 18 and is ready for fun. She’s located on the Berlin Turnpike, and when you call the listed number, a man answers ready to negotiate price.
There are dozens of Janes out there, of course, and officials at the state Department of Children and Families believe many of them are Connecticut children being victimized by a thriving sex-slave industry.
“The Internet makes it so you don’t have to be standing on the streets to be a victim,” said Tammy Sneed, director of girls’ services at the state’s child protection agency.
To combat child sex slavery in Connecticut, DCF has begun training 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’s limited range of services.
Sneed, who will be testifying Wednesday in Washington, D.C., before the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, said police officers and teachers must learn to see past a child’s bad attitudes or denial and recognize the behavioral signs that he or she is being sexually exploited.
“The children need to be seen as the victim, not a criminal,” said Lamont Hiebert, co-founder of Love146, a New Haven-based organization working to end child sex slavery. The organization conducts education awareness campaigns and helps trafficked girls transition out of the lifestyle.
Almost all the children who have been identified in Connecticut as being sex slaves were foster children or runaways with prior abuse.
So far this year, DCF has identified 10 children – nine girls and a boy — who have been sold for sex in Connecticut. Almost all are from Connecticut, with one from another country. In the previous four years, some 83 confirmed child prostitutes have been referred to DCF.
Sneed fears there are many more child victims who have not been identified.
A different lens
“These kids are not going to come up to you and tell you they are the victim of sex trafficking… They don’t see themselves that way or are too ashamed,” Sneed said.
When she testified before state legislators two years ago, “D.C.”, a former child prostitute who witnessed her friends being sent to jail, shared why she never came forward for help.
“I did not try and tell anyone because I was scared; scared what they would do to me, but also what the government thought of me,” she testified.
State law was recently changed to prohibit children age 15 and younger from being charged with prostitution. DCF and other child advocates are seeking to raise that to age 18 this next legislative session.
It is unclear how many minors are charged with prostitution each year, though officials believe the number is small. These children often find themselves facing a loitering, trespassing or drug-related charge.
DCF is hoping their new training program will give officers and teachers not only the skills to recognize sex trafficking traits in children, but also a better, less criminal, option to get them help. Some of those tell-tale indicators of child sex slavery include branding, having excess amounts of cash, or having hotel keys and a controlling boyfriend.
After two hours of training at Yale University last week, Bob Osborne, a teacher in New Haven at Hill Regional Career High School, said there he now sees some apparent warning signs in two of his students.
“I see this through a whole different lens now,” he said. “This has made me think this may be a factor in their lives.”
Another avenue for help
DCF is trying to get the word out to police departments that sexualy abused children don’t need to be arrested to get counseling and housing.
Last year, state law changed to require police departments to verbally report to DCF within 12 hours whenever they arrest a child they suspect has been sexually exploited.
DCF officials braced for an influx of reports, they said, but they never came.
Sneed said it’s not because fewer children are being abused. The FBI estimates there are hundreds of thousands of children being exploited nationwide. She suspects the low numbers of reports are because some local police departments and school systems are not aware they can bypass the courts and still get children help from DCF.
That’s about to change.
This fall the department is teaming up with West Hartford’s police department to train 13 other police forces. DCF is also independently training some additional departments and Love146 is working to train several school systems.
But DCF is facing some resistance, either from departments who don’t see child prostitution as an issue in their community or who don’t have the time to spend the money to send their officers to training.
It’s also a matter of trust, said Osborne, the teacher from New Haven.
“I want to protect the kids, but I also don’t want to hurt them more,” he said. “DCF has a long way to go to show me these kids will not be harmed more if I get them involved. I am very reluctant.”
A thriving market
Efforts by lawmakers to rid web sites like Craigslist and Backpage of prostitution advertisements have had limited success.
In May, a teenage girl in New London told her story to a judge in Superior Court about how she was being sold on Craigslist by her pimp. She also shared how she was raped and locked up in a hotel room.
Before becoming a U.S. senator, Sen. Richard Blumenthal was one of dozens of attorneys general who induced Craigslist to close its adult section and promise greater monitoring. However, Backpage, the web site that hosts the majority of online prostitution advertisements, hasn’t followed suit.
“It would be the wrong thing for Backpage to take down its adult category,” Liz McDougall, the lawyer for Backpage, told ABC News. If it were taken down, she said, ” You are losing a key tool for law enforcement to get insights into this illicit activity, to get data, greater data than it’s ever existed before, to locate, to identify the perpetrators, and to rescue victims.”
A bill proposed earlier this year would have prohibited companies from publishing child prostitution advertisements, but it failed to become law. Instead, a compromise law allows for the pimp to be prosecuted.
“The intent was to have the publisher be the buffer and blockade this activity,” said Gary Levvis, the coordinator of the University of Connecticut’s Children’s Rights Education Project. “This law is somewhat empty. These pimps are already engaged in the illegal act.”