Blumenthal pushes for stricter laws to end human trafficking
NORTH HAVEN — Human trafficking is known as an issue overseas, but the issue also is prevalent in Connecticut.
At Quinnipiac University Monday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. gathered with victim advocates, students, attorneys, survivors and hotel representatives to discuss efforts to combat sex trafficking.
Blumenthal seeks to pass legislation that would make it difficult for internet sites to host advertisements for sex trafficking. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, aims to make it illegal, knowingly or with reckless disregard, to assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking, and to amend the section of the Communications Decency Act that protects online platforms from liability caused by user content.
“Human trafficking thrives on vulnerability, whether it’s economic, social or cultural,” Blumenthal said. “It’s among the most pernicious and insidious of criminal actions.”
Human trafficking is legally defined as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation,” according to the National Institute of Justice.
“It has reached public consciousness in a way it has never done before because people now see it as real and urgent,” he said.
Tammy Sneed, director of girls’ services at the state Department of Children and Families, and a member of the Connecticut anti-trafficking response team, said they received 202 unique referrals of possible victims of human trafficking in the state in 2016 and have predicted referrals in 2017 will surpass last year’s numbers.
“For anyone who thinks it’s just happening abroad, it’s right here and it’s becoming more and more prevalent,” Blumenthal said.
Most of youth coercied into sex trafficking in Connecticut are from the state and stay here, said Erin Williamson, U.S. survivor care program director of Love 146, an organization that works to abolish child sex trafficking. The majority of victims here are identified and exploited here and never leave the state.
Theresa Leonard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad and a survivor of child sex trafficking, said some women did not know they were exploited or trafficked, either as a child or an adult.
“I remember thinking, every person has taken a piece of me,” she said. “Every man who has touched me has taken a piece of me. But today through healing, everything has been returned.”
Hotels and motels are most often the site of human trafficking and exploitation, Sneed said, and internet sites are most often how victims are sold.
Marriott Hotels has recently mandated a training for their employees that teaches them how to indentify and report human trafficking. Tu Rinsche, director of corporate social responsibility of Marriott International, Inc., said hotels are being exploited for involvement in human trafficking and just providing information on the issue can be critical in discovering trafficking cases.
Second-year law student Taylor Matook is one of 30 law students at Quinnipiac University working on the Human Trafficking Prevention Project, a free training for hotels and motels that teaches employees at all levels how to spot signs of human trafficking and how to report it. The initiative is the same as the training Marriott International has established in all their hotels.
Some signs of human trafficking activity in hotels and motels include people who are not scheduled to be staying there going in and out of a room, guests paying for rooms nightly and with cash, and a “Do not disturb” sign left on a door for a number of days.
“They might be seeing one sign, and see it every day and not think it’s out of the norm,”Matook said. “But if more employees report the one sign, and someone else reports another sign, then we’re building a narrative to identify human trafficking. All the signs are important and one might not be enough but all the signs are enough.”
Through the initiative, Matook and others have provided five trainings at the university to various hotels and want to start a conversation about how human trafficking occurs through internet-based house rental or vacation rental services, , she said.
Brian Sibly, lead prosecutor on the prosecutors of human trafficking task force, said fighting the issue requires awareness of it by prosecutors, law enforcement, probation officers, judges, social workers and everyone involved in criminal justice system.
“The problem is domestic where every city, every town within Connecticut is experiencing it.” he said.
As trafficking is an illegal underground issue that is highly complex and underreported, the issue is difficult to measure. But according to the International Labor Organization, 40.3 million people were in modern slavery in 2016 and an estimated 4.8 million people are victims in sexual exploitation.