NEW BRITAIN >> Every night as her mother painted on her makeup, young Theresa Leonard held on to the promise that when she was done working, she would get to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Now in her 40s, in her office at Coram Deo, a Christian recovery center for women who have suffered from addiction and abuse, Leonard told how for two years she slept on hotel and motel room floors or in closets after a night of being groped and forced to have sex with strange men — sometimes being sold for as little as a $10 bag of crack.

She was 10 and living as a nomad with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, traveling from town to town along the Connecticut shore. She never got to Chuck E. Cheese’s, she said.

“When the police started driving around, we would move to another hotel,” said Leonard. “Some of it is so dark, it’s too awful to believe.”

This criminal abuse of children remains a problem in the state, and data shows it may be on the rise.

Last year, the state Department of Children and Families received the highest amount of referrals of potential victims of domestic minor sex trafficking since the agency started documenting the numbers in 2008, according to Tammy Sneed, who directs the DCF Human Anti-trafficking Response Team.

There were 201 unique referrals of potential victims of domestic minor sex trafficking in 2016, Sneed said: 183 girls, 17 boys and one minor who identified as transgender.

A victim of domestic minor sex trafficking does not come from another country, or even another state, according to Sneed. It could be the girl or boy next door, whose body was sold for sex in exchange for something of value, such as money, food, clothes, drugs or simply a place to sleep.

Nationally, reported sex-trafficking cases also continue to climb. The number of referrals made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline increased by 35 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit dedicated to combating the crime. The Polaris Project had more than 7,000 calls nationwide in 2016, with 73 percent potential sex-trafficking cases.

But, for a crime that mostly takes place under the radar, statistics do not tell the whole story, advocates say.

“The data do not represent the full scope of human trafficking — a lack of awareness of the crime or of these hotlines in certain geographic regions, by particular racial or ethnic groups, and by labor trafficking survivors can lead to significant underreporting,” Polaris stated in 2016.

HIGHEST BIDDER

While some of the increase in referrals can be attributed to higher awareness, Sneed said, domestic minor sex trafficking is also one of the world’s fastest-growing and most lucrative crimes.

And for women such as Leonard, who grew up knowing “the highest bidder gets me,” the realities are all too real, she said.

Leonard’s past of being exploited continues to haunt her and has determined the course of much of her adult life, she said. Her self-worth being decided by the men who paid to have sex with her was a mindset she could not shake as a young adult, she said, and sex work became her only way to survive.

Sneed said that many young victims return to the life as adults — it’s the only way they feel they know how to make money. This leads to more victim-blaming by people unaware and unfamiliar with the trauma of being trafficked and its potential long-term effects on survivors.

“Prostitution was surviving and it was never my choice,” Leonard said. “I was tired, and I was broken and I was alone. Every friend that I had, there was a price.”

No ONE IS IMMUNE

Despite popular belief that victims of sex trafficking are the young women and men who have been failed by “the system,” Sneed said fewer than half of the referrals made in 2016 of potential cases of domestic minor sex trafficking involved minors in the welfare system.

Some of those referrals, which are classified by the department as high-risk cases unless they are later confirmed by law enforcement as trafficking cases, involve victims from two-parent households who are straight-A students, Sneed said.

“No young person is immune.”

Traffickers will prey on a victim’s vulnerabilities and can do so more readily on social media now, she said.

“(Victims) are groomed on the internet,” Sneed said. “That person on the other end knows exactly what to say.”

Leonard said she knows that most victims today are recruited by a pimp and not a family member, but she still suffered the same brainwashing and psychological abuse other victims go through with their pimps, who have tricked them into believing that things will get better as long as they do a good job.

And even though her promised trips to Chuck E. Cheese’s never came through, and her mother surrendered custody of her, Leonard said she still fought to try to stay with her in the end.

“I lied for my mother. ... It’s amazing that I was defending my mom,” she said.

Many cases remain unreported Sneed said because youths often do not even realize they are victims, and feel bonded to their trafficker.

A referral received by the DCF for potential minor sex trafficking cannot be confirmed unless the victim says that they were trafficked or law enforcement does. But, all referrals remain classified as high risk cases, she said, and survivors are provided ongoing support to help them from returning to the life.

Battle for justice

“Criminals have realized that this is a lucrative market,” said David Palmbach, who works for the Center for Digital Investigations for the Glastonbury Police Department. “You can keep reusing the girl.”

Palmbach estimates there were 600,000 ads for sex posted online in 2016 in Connecticut, which is twice the number he found in 2015.

While some of that increase has to do with people’s ability to repost ads multiple times daily on a variety of sites and online platforms, Palmbach said it’s also due to a growth in the industry and a surge in the crime, especially as ads move online and make it easier for traffickers to reach more customers.

In response to the surge, lawmakers in the latest General Assembly session have proposed making the purchase of sex from a minor a Class C felony.

In addition, legislation passed last year has created mandatory training for hotel and motel employees and requires they maintain records of patrons for at least six months to aid law enforcement investigating potential cases of sex trafficking.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced a public-private partnership in January that would help provide training for hotel and motel staffs to recognize signs of sex trafficking and how to report suspected cases.

“We wouldn’t have sex trafficking if there wasn’t a demand,” said Jillian Gilchrest, a senior policy analyst for the state’s Trafficking in Persons Council. It is run by state Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, which announced an “End Demand” campaign this year targeted at those who purchase sex.

“It’s really a prevention strategy,” Gilchrest said of the push that seeks to spread awareness and to encourage lawmakers to pass laws that will make punishment for “johns” harsher, especially if they purchase sex from a minor.

“When you don’t have a risk for buying, you’re going to buy,” she said.

At the federal level, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with several federal agencies, state police, and 16 local police departments, has made efforts to reduce trafficking through the Human Trafficking Task Force created in November 2015. Since then, federal charges have been brought against three alleged traffickers, and four individuals are also facing state-level charges, though Connecticut U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly said that three of the state cases will likely become federal because multiple victims were involved.

Last year, federal judges in Connecticut sentenced two convicted sex traffickers to 10 years in prison each for their roles in trafficking minors.

Sneed said that while she applauds all of the measures taken, the state has a long way to go in protecting potential victims from ever entering into the life, and rescuing those already there, especially as the number of referrals climb. The next goal of DCF and nonprofit partner Love146, a New Haven group fighting trafficking globally, is to make free presentations in schools statewide to educate students, parents and teachers about the crime and how to recognize the signs, as well as discuss healthy relationships and internet safety.

Every school in the state has been contacted by DCF and a vast majority has declined, Sneed said.

Road to healing

As Leonard continues to struggle with her own survival and healing, she has found ways to assist others who have suffered the same plight, including providing testimony at churches about her experiences for The Underground Connecticut, a Christian ministry she helped found, which is dedicated to preventing sex trafficking in Connecticut.

For her day job, Leonard is a case manager for Coram Deo, which operates two recovery living centers. Jody Davis, executive director of Coram Deo, describes Leonard as one of the strongest women she has ever met.

“It’s been really neat to be a part of her story,” Davis said. “She’s an amazing woman.”

Leonard herself was a resident at Coram Deo more than once, as she struggled with drug relapses after leaving prison in her 30s. It was during two stretches of incarceration that Leonard became a Christian, experienced sobriety, and laid down to bed at night on a mattress that had sheets for the first time.

“If I didn’t begin to heal, I would always go back to drugs,” Leonard said, as drugs were a way to cope with the shame she felt from sex work. “Sadly, it’s a lifetime of healing.”

Leonard is now married to Marc Rozyn, a man she described in a recent talk for The Underground Connecticut at Promise Land Church in West Haven as a “loving and respectful husband” who has given her a relationship of love and respect she has never experienced before.

“I live in a house in the sticks with my amazing husband, our two dogs and our scruffy cat,” she said to close her presentation at Promise Land. “It’s the family I always wanted, our own little Brady Bunch.”

Leonard said many women she works with at Coram Deo were once sexually exploited and she is walking with them on their journey to recovery.

“They don’t know they were sex-trafficked,” Leonard said. “I want them to know that they can take care of themselves and they don’t have to go back to the pimp.”