NEWINGTON — Urging motorists to keep their eyes open, a billboard along the Berlin Turnpike warns that human trafficking happens where they live.
The billboard’s giant eyes look over a road that has become known for traffickers operating out of by-the-hour motel rooms. Speakers at a forum hosted by the Newington Rotary Club said it’s an issue that can be found in the most innocuous places.
Yvette Young, director of the Anti-Human Trafficking Response Team, a branch of the state Department of Children and Families, said there were 210 cases of children being trafficked or at risk last year. Some of children were as young as 2 to 4 years old.
“The reality is human trafficking happens in every single part of the state of Connecticut; whether it's a rural community, a suburban community, or an urban community," she said.
Young was joined at the forum, held at Saint Mary’s Church, by FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kurt Siuzdak, Lynn Campbell, executive director of the Hartford Diocese’s Office of Catholic Social Justice Ministry, and Stephanie Clark, executive director of Amirah New England, a nonprofit that provides services for trafficking victims.
Young said the number of reported cases each year is a fraction of the number of children being trafficked. Smaller still is the number of cases that actually are prosecuted – in 2017 there were just nine arrests and one prosecution for child trafficking.
"... I don't think we can begin to fathom the level of exploitation that's happening because there's so much fear about disclosing," she said.
Young said some of the signs of a child being trafficked include unexplained injuries and frequently running away or skipping school.
The signs can also be subtle, such as two siblings who teachers noticed were often tired in class. Investigators found that they were being trafficked at night by their parents to do housework.
Most of the trafficking cases she deals with, however, involve children being sold for sex work, often by a family member. Young said trafficking is the second most profitable gang activity.
“You can sell a child more than once,” she said. “You cannot sell a drug more than once, you cannot sell a gun more than once.”
Siuzdak said traffickers often use social media to groom victims and find customers. Even with cyber technology, aerial surveillance and tactical teams, he often finds his ability to help trafficking survivors is limited.
Many victims are approached by other traffickers who attempt to coerce them into further exploitation. With limited resources, Siuzdak said he’s reliant on groups like Amirah.
Clark said the organization is in the process of opening its first residential facility in Connecticut for women who have been trafficked. The homes they operate typically provide shelter for eight women. They are given therapy, job training and a safe place to recover.
Connecticut-based organizations, such as The Underground, Love146, and the Salvation Army, have organized volunteers to spread posters about ways to escape from exploitation. They have also brought backpacks filled with supplies to people suspected of being trafficked.
Next to the speakers was a poster with the phone number for the Nation Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888.