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Friday, January 19 Local

YWCA panel puts spotlight on sex trafficking in Connecticut

GREENWICH — Law enforcement wouldn’t engage, Joette Katz remembered. It had taken weeks to even find the girl, and she was about to be sold to some creeper out of state.

Then, Katz and her team found an angle. The case had a gang connection, they said, and suddenly the officers perked up.

Police rescued the victim last year, just in time. At least, they rescued her in time to stop the sale. Her face had already become collateral damage.

A dollar sign tattooed across her skin branded her as a commodity. She was her pimp’s property.

Katz refrained from providing additional details about the case, including the community in which it took place, but said the girl was one of hundreds of Connecticut’s kids who have endured sex trafficking.

As commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, Katz identified 202 youth sex trafficking victims in 2016 alone. Of them, 184 were girls, 17 were boys, and one was transgender.

Out of DCF’s six regions, the largest population of trafficked youth fell in the Stamford-Norwalk-Bridgeport area, which includes Greenwich.

“This is going on in your neighborhood, in your backyard,” Katz told a local audience on Thursday evening.

At a panel hosted by the YWCA Greenwich, she and four other experts briefed listeners on youth sex trafficking in the United States, and particularly in Connecticut. The well-attended event was dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. only days before the national holiday commemorating his life.

“We are very proud this evening to carry on Dr. King’s legacy,” said Mary Lee Kiernan, president and CEO of YWCA Greenwich.

Kiernan explained that the panel’s primary objective was two-pronged: To provide a robust understanding of the topic, and to give a sense of what individuals can do to join the fight against trafficking.

“When we talk about trafficking, it is a form of contemporary slavery,” said Krishna Patel, general counsel and director of justice initiatives at Grace Farms Foundation, a former federal prosecutor and the evening’s moderator. “I do think it’s the civil rights issue of our day.”

Patel spelled out the reality of the problem: Connecticut-based children are being raped for money. Constantly.

“Eight hundred kids. We can eradicate that. And we can be a model,” she said.

But, she continued, driving out youth sex trafficking will take a Herculean effort from an activist mass, not to mention a political will she hasn’t yet seen.

“If you stay silent, I really feel like you are being complicit,” Patel said.

As an issue, sex trafficking is still fairly young, especially Stateside. Prostitution may be the oldest profession, but any real political understanding that people are being forced to provide commercial sex without consent on domestic soil is something that has only emerged in the last few decades. The first comprehensive federal law to address trafficking was not enacted until 2000.

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“If you’d asked me 10 years ago about human trafficking, I would have said that was somebody else’s problem,” admitted U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th, who attended part of the panel.

In Connecticut, there are contradictory statutes on the books that in the past have impeded justice for victims. For example, until recently, a minor of a certain age was vulnerable to prostitution charges for engaging in commercial sex, even when an adult partner could be accused of second-degree sexual assault for having relations with that same underage person.

“You have to understand that she is a victim, and that she’s not guilty of that crime,” said Rod Khattabi, director of safety and justice initiatives adviser at Grace Farms Foundation and a former head of Homeland Security in Connecticut.

However, victims often don’t see themselves as such. Because of the intimate relationships pimps tend to foster with the kids they abuse, a family-like bond makes victims feel indebted to their perpetrators and skeptical of law enforcement.

“I work a lot of cases involving minors who associate themselves with a pimp who treats them well, and somehow they feel obligated to please him. And that’s what they do,” Khattabi said.

Sometimes, he added, it can take days to establish trust between an officer and a victim. Occasionally, a kid will refuse to cooperate at all, as he said happened with a 14-year-old girl from the Bronx.

Another huge problem is that today, pimps pedal children through popular websites like Backpage.com, and because of stipulations in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, it is nearly impossible to hold online platforms accountable.

Vincent T. Nappo, who works at a Seattle-based law firm that handled a high profile civil case against Backpage, spoke about what he found on the classified-ad website after three minor victims came to his office.

“In 2011, there wasn’t anything hidden at all. It was blatant commercial sex trafficking,” he said. “There was absolutely no ambiguity here.”

After reviewing 50,000-70,000 pages of records, he found that Backpage’s employees “clean” advertisements of obvious language that signals a child is being trafficked before posting them online.

“They would automatically and manually remove these indicators and then they would publish the sanitized ad,” Nappo said.

On Jan. 9, heads of influential Connecticut organizations, including YWCA Greenwich, co-signed a letter to Attorney General George Jepsen urging him to sue Backpage on the state level.

“Connecticut should not, and cannot, wait for the current Federal administration or other States to step up, but should do what it takes to fight sex trafficking here in Connecticut and bring Backpage to justice,” it stated.

On Thursday night, panelists asked the audience to read the letter and then contact officials to push for follow-through.

For much of the audience, about half of whom raised their hands when asked if they had seen the documentary “I Am Jane Doe” on youth sex trafficking, information about Backpage probably wasn’t all that new. But revelations about the lack of cooperation some agencies encounter when trying to prevent trafficking may have come as more of a surprise.

Katz underscored one of the largest obstacles she’s encountered in terms of combatting the crime. In Connecticut schools, she’s a persona non grata.

“I think there’s this perception that if I come, I’m bringing it with me,” she said.

The Department of Children and Families has offered to provide free training in high schools to raise awareness about youth sex trafficking. But Katz’s overtures have gone unheard.

When Khattabi worked for Homeland Security, he reached out to high schools with the hope of speaking to students on the issue. He was constantly turned down.

To Nappo, it was unfathomable that Connecticut’s educational institutions would be unwilling to work with local agencies on prevention. Forget high school, the victims he advocates for are in middle school, he said. And, he continued, if an information session by law enforcement or DCF could save even one person from victimhood, that alone should be enough.

After outlining some of the challenges agencies face when trying to combat trafficking, the panelists redirected their attention to how audience members could help.

Jillian Gilchrest, who chairs the Connecticut Trafficking in Persons Council, said people should challenge systemic tendencies, like the over-sexualization of children and the idea that men need access to commercial sex.

Khattabi told the audience to call their senators and advocate for change. And Nappo gave two courses of action: First, he said, identify local organizations fighting trafficking and pitch in. Then, he said, pull out a pocketbook and give to those parties.

“$100. $200. $50. Anything,” he said.

Katz’s advice was more circumstantial.

“If you're standing in a hotel lobby and you see a young girl with a lot of makeup on with some credit card paying for a room, get engaged,” she said.

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