Little attention had been paid to a proposed bill — An Act Concerning Human Trafficking — that unfortunately died at the end of the 2018 Legislative Session. Given the significant attention and gains that Connecticut has made in recent years in the fight against human trafficking, it was a heartfelt defeat. For nearly a decade, Connecticut has been a leader in the nation in human trafficking reforms that better protect victims, more vigorously prosecute traffickers, and prevent continued victimization.

This year, the proposed bill would have aligned our state’s definition of human trafficking with the federal definition. This language change was not merely symbolic: it would provide victims with greater protections and hold offenders more accountable. But time ran out and this important legislative proposal did not get a vote.

The sticking point for this bill came down to a question of who lawmakers consider to be offenders.  According to federal human trafficking law, anyone who exchanges something of value with a child for sex is committing the crime of human trafficking. That is not the case in Connecticut, which is just one of only 10 states across the nation that does not have a trafficking law that holds buyers (people purchasing sex) accountable.

The extent of exploitation that occurs at the hands of these buyers continues to be misunderstood and at times minimized by many in Connecticut. The argument that these minors are “prostituting themselves” or that this is their “choice” is in direct conflict with our ever-increasing understanding of adolescent brain development, our expanded knowledge about how minors are groomed and recruited into sex trafficking, and the actual power structure that is at play when adult buyers take advantage of vulnerable youth.

In the #MeToo age we are no longer blaming rape victims by suggesting that they invited the crime due to their attire or lifestyle, and we should not be suggesting that youth who are exploited and raped and then given something of value in exchange “chose” their exploitation.

The language initially drafted to align Connecticut with the Federal definitions of human trafficking was recommended by the state’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Council and developed through a collaborative process with the input of key stakeholders, including representatives from state agencies, the judicial branch, law enforcement, and community-based organizations that work with this population. This group also sought input from a leading national anti-human trafficking organization. The Legislature established the TIP Council to study the issues of human trafficking and to make recommendations to the Connecticut General Assembly.

We are asking that the legislature listen to the recommendations of the council they established, protect our children, and hold those who traffic children accountable.

While this session is over, we still have an opportunity to pass a comprehensive human trafficking bill next year that aligns our state’s definition with that of the federal government.

Since 2008, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families has received referrals for over 900 children identified as potential victims of trafficking. Many Connecticut lawmakers have been champions in the fight against human trafficking, and their efforts are appreciated and an inspiration. We are now asking the rest of the general assembly to join their colleagues in this fight against trafficking.

Erin Williamson is US Survivor Care program director at Love146, the New Haven-based international anti-trafficking organization. Krystal Rich is the director of the Connecticut Children’s Alliance.

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