This is the time of year we celebrate family. Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanza all present an opportunity to cherish our children and grandchildren. There has been nothing more joyful in my life than the wide-eyed look of wonder in a small child’s eyes on Christmas morning, witnessing the splendor that Santa has provided to them. But there are children in this state who not only have probably never celebrated a Christmas like yours and mine, but more importantly have lives that are filled with misery.
There’s a silent epidemic growing in the State of Connecticut; one that right thinking people would be shocked to learn. It’s not a disease process. It’s not the threat of terror. It’s the commercial sex trafficking of minors. It isn’t only occurring in third world countries, like Haiti or Thailand. Sadly, it’s occurring here under our very noses. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) presently has 300 active cases of children as young as nine years old who have been the victims of sex trafficking. Many of these youngsters have been groomed and conditioned to believe that this is their only means of survival. Most do not even fully understand their victimization without intensive therapy.
The International Academy of Trial Lawyers is comprised of a select group of litigators, many of whom are plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers. Our ranks number no more than 500 throughout the country. Connecticut is fortunate to have among its Academy Fellows many of our most notable trial lawyers. At our mid-year meeting in July a compelling presentation was made by Linda Sher, the Academy executive director. It wasn’t about how to win more lawsuits or make more money. It wasn’t about advancing our legal education or our trial skills. It was about the very sad reality of human trafficking of minors in this country.
Thanks to the initiative by Fellows, Ernie Teitell and Bill Clendenen, our chapter met this week with DCF Commissioner, Joette Katz and Tammy Sneed, a nationally recognized expert on child sex trafficking. What we learned was shocking. Not only are youngsters being trafficked by gangland type pimps, but more importantly the typical Johns are white, middle class, middle aged men. Counted among these are professionals, individuals with families, people respected in their communities.
Pimps advertise online in a number of sites . Typically the youngster is provided a VISA debit card and driven to a local hotel where the John awaits eager to engage in sex. These are not the typical “hot sheets” motels that rent by the hour. We are learning that many of the state’s elite hotels are used, sometimes unwittingly and many times simply turning a blind eye. One of the surprising pieces of information that Linda Sher brought to us this summer was that there is a significant uptick in this type of trafficking during the course of the Super Bowl. Youngsters are brought in from all over of the country and very affluent individuals who have paid thousands of dollars to attend the event take advantage of them sexually.
Among DCF’s 300 cases only 10 are being actively prosecuted, largely in the Federal Court, where the penalties are significantly more harsh than those available in our state courts, including mandatory ten year minimum prison sentences. Further, the definition of a minor for federal criminal liability is one under age of 18. By contrast Connecticut recognizes 16 as the age of consent. Ms Sneed was asked why there aren’t more prosecutions. It isn’t a question of lack of interest or lack of effort. There are presently 17 specially trained multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) that are available to work together with law enforcement throughout the state to conduct forensic interviews of child victims and aid law enforcement and DCF.
Most prosecutions are the result of serendipity. A youngster confides in a friend who tells a parent or a teacher or a counselor. Another youngster mentions it to a therapist. Occasionally an offender is caught in some type of sting operation. These are, however, crimes of deception. The offenders go to great lengths to avoid exposure. As a consequence literally hundreds of offenders go unnoticed and thus suffer no accountability, either criminally or civilly, despite the best efforts of law enforcement. Victims are unwilling or too frightened to cooperate.
From our meeting the concept was advanced that we, as trial lawyers, possess the needed skills and resources to take action and create public exposure and accountability. The Fellows of the Academy have pledged themselves to work together, pro bono, with DCF to develop and implement a strategy for accountability. One of our Fellows, Cindy Robinson, was one of the premier lead attorneys representing the interests of victims of clerical sexual abuse that led to significant settlements against the Catholic Church. The effects of those settlements went beyond dollars and cents. It created transparency. It made the institutional church responsible for the conduct of individuals, which in many instances had been overlooked or swept aside in the name of pastoral counseling. Plaintiffs’ verdicts, particularly on major issues such as this, have an ability to effect change. We are considering whether there is anything we can do as trial lawyers to create the same kind of deterrence to those who sit in their darkened rooms, behind a computer, trolling websites for access to young victims.
So the trial lawyers want to help shoulder the burden to create transparency. What can you do? You can make sure that when information about a victimized youngster comes to your attention it is reported to DCF. Connecticut has stringent laws identifying who among us are mandated reporters, including clergy, health professionals, therapists, educators, coaches, and essentially anyone charged with the responsibility of supervising or treating youngsters. Penalties for failure to report in the past were unclassified infractions, with a fine of no more than $500. Now penalties can be as severe as a felony. The statute requires that when a mandated reporter suspects child physical abuse or sexual abuse DCF must be contacted immediately through a phone Hotline and a reporting form. DCF is then charged with the responsibility to investigate the complaint. Unfortunately there is a limitation on DCF’s jurisdiction. The agency can only involve itself in cases of a caregiver suspected of abuse. A third party, non-caregiver, is outside the ambit of DCF. Many of those 300 youngsters have been abused by individuals who are not their responsible caregivers.
If DCF substantiates abuse it maintains its own registry where the individual is listed. This is not public like the sex offender registry. Legislation is needed to increase the authority of DCF to accept complaints of abuse by third party non-caregivers. . There has to be a call to better action by our legislature. There has to be more funding available for DCF and the non-profits that work with these kids to provide them the necessary support to have the courage to break the cycle. There has to be more of a commitment by all of us morally. If you wish to learn more about this epidemic you can do so at the following links:
* Georgetown Report with a wealth of information: http://www.law.georgetown.edu/academics/centers-institutes/poverty-inequality/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=169026
Below is a link to DCF’s website/ HART page:
Excellent resources are 1) Polaris Project and 2) Shared Hope International: Note: Shared Hope report linked below gives Connecticut a below average grade for legislation.