Forum helps New Haven area hotel/motel owners learn to spot sex trafficking
NEW HAVEN >> Hotel and motel managers and owners were coached Thursday on how to recognize warning signs of human trafficking that might be taking place on their premises, as law enforcement and child service providers talked about the increased need for awareness as minor sex trafficking referrals continue to rise.
“A lot of people don’t think this is happening in their hotels, but it is,” said Wendy Bowersox, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “It is what it is.”
The bottom line, Bowersox said, is that hotel managers and workers should not be afraid to say something if they have concerns or notice warning signs of suspicious activity involving minors.
The training, which took place at Gateway Community College, was held as part of a state law enacted in October that requires lodgers to participate in awareness trainings and post information about human trafficking on their premises as an ongoing effort to prevent and end human trafficking in the state.
“You don’t want to be the hotel that has police there every day, and we understand that,” said Sarala Nagala, an assistant U.S. attorney in the state. “But, if it does (look bad), it’s better to call than not.”
Nagala added that it was important for hotels and motels to keep records of visiting clientele and video surveillance footage as long as they can, as it aids federal investigators in building their cases against suspected traffickers.
A federal conviction on a charge of sex trafficking of a minor calls for a mandatory 10 years in prison, according to law. When the minor is under the age of 14, the mandatory minimum sentence is 15 years.
Nagala said that prior to the creation of the state Human Trafficking Task Force, of which the U.S. attorney’s office is a part, the office had prosecuted 28 cases against sex traffickers. Since the task force was created in October 2015, the office has brought cases against five suspected individuals.
One of those cases was the recent conviction of Ramon Gomez, 40, also known as “B.I.,” of Uncasville, who pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a minor in November. The minor victim in this case, a 17-year-old female, died as a result of a drug overdose, after she was provided drugs by Gomez in a Groton motel room, according to court documents. Gomez also pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute heroin, according to court documents.
Some of the warning signs hotel and motel staff should look out for include pornography rentals in rooms where children are staying, children arriving for an extended stay in a room with very few possessions, and children that appear to be disoriented, confused, or unable to speak for themselves, said Erin Williamson, the survivor care coordinator for the New Haven-based nonprofit Love146, which is dedicated to fighting human trafficking domestically and around the world.
Williamson also said that staff should be on the lookout for children that do not leave their room for extended periods of time, or never leave the room alone. Another red flag would be multiple adults coming and going from the same room, she said.
It was stressed that hotel managers and staff should not attempt to confront a suspected trafficker on their own, but call 911 in an emergency or alert federal authorities by calling 866-DHS-2-ICE (866-347-2423).
Williamson said traffickers who operate in hotels or motels conduct either “out calls” or “in calls.” An out call is when buyers of sex can request a minor come to their hotel room and the trafficker brings the minor there, and an in call is when the trafficker sets the minor up in a room and customers come to that room.
Minor victims of sex trafficking who the state Department of Children and Families has assisted have reported being victimized between five and 20 times in a single night, said Tammy Sneed, co-chairwoman of DCF’s Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team.
That is part of what makes the business so lucrative, Sneed said, in contrast to the drug trade where a substance can only be used once.
“These kids can be sold over and over and over and over again,” she said.
Sneed said that the numbers are still being finalized, but approximately 195 referrals were made to the DCF care line reporting suspected domestic minor sex trafficking in the state in 2016. Based on data available to DCF, Sneed said the agency estimates that there were at least 2,000 buyers of sex in the state last year.
An important aspect of the training, Sneed and Williamson said, was making hotel and motel managers and staff aware that sex trafficking does happen in Connecticut, and the more awareness is increased, the more potential victims can be helped. The pair talked at length about the grooming process that traffickers use to entice vulnerable youth and get them to fall in love with them, and how they use threats and violence to maintain control over the victims.
In a testimonial given by a victim of sex trafficking in a documentary shown during the training, the young woman said her trafficker told her, “‘I would love you more if you brought in more money.” The victim added, “When I did it, I felt like it was for him, and that’s all that mattered.”
To request help from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).