HARTFORD — Jillian Gilchrest, chairwoman of the state’s Trafficking in Persons Council, says the Berlin Turnpike is a hotbed for sex trafficking, often involving minors who are exploited.
Sex trafficking in area motels has been the subject of several reports and at least one book in recent years. The Underground, a faith-based organization, investigated sex trafficking on the Berlin Turnpike between 2012 and 2014, identifying 36 motels between Wethersfield and Meriden, 27 of which offer hourly rates. While it’s no secret what’s going on at these motels, Gilchrest said, there is complacency toward the sex industry.
“For far too long, state laws and culture accepted that the purchase of sex will happen,” said Gilchrest, senior policy analyst for the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women. “That acceptance has allowed the Berlin Turnpike to continue. It’s not like a destination spot, so why would there be so many hotels and motels. Everyone knows what’s going on, it’s just allowed to continue.”
The Judiciary Committee advanced two bills Wednesday to attempt to address the issue through several measures. A bill introduced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would make it a felony to entice or seduce someone online reasonably believed to be younger than 16. The bill would also make it a felony to patronize a prostitute regardless of whether or not “such person knew or reasonably should have known at the time” that the individual was under 18.
Another bill raised by the committee would mandate additional training for law enforcement and employees at hotels and motels to identify victims of sex trafficking. It would also require businesses that offer lodging to maintain detailed records of transactions for at least six months. This measure would aid law enforcement investigating sex trafficking, Gilchrest said, noting that many motels only take cash for hourly stays and don’t keep detailed records.
“Most of us usually have to put down a credit card for a hotel,” she said. “It was shocking to me when I first heard about it.”
The bill initially included a provision that would make it illegal to charge hourly for a room at a hotel or motel, as is the case at many establishments on the Berlin Turnpike, according to Gilchrest.
Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, a Meriden Democrat whose district includes a portion of the Berlin Turnpike, said she saw “no reason” why hotels and motels are allowed to offer hourly, cash-only rates. But the Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to strike the measure from the bill in response to testimony received during a public hearing Monday. Several people testified how hourly rates are often used by truck drivers and travelers seeking a break from the road.
Victor Antico, president of the Connecticut Lodging Association, wrote in testimony submitted to the committee that language in the bill “isolates the industry,” as opposed to working with hotels and motels on unified campaign to fight sex trafficking.
Part of the issue, Gilchrest said, is that the focus is rarely, if ever “on the demand side,” or those who patronize prostitutes. Both pieces of legislation passed Wednesday by the Judiciary Committee would partially address that concern, she said.
The committee’s bill would only allow those 18 and older to be charged with prostitution, a misdemeanor. Anyone 16 and older can be charged with prostitution under current law. By adopting this measure, Gilchrest said, lawmakers would be recognizing that those under 18 are victims. The bill would set a $2,000 fine for anyone convicted of patronizing a prostitute. It would also allow law enforcement to seize cash from anyone charged with promoting prostitution or caught with a prostitute.
“I think that people are always so quick to jump to the conclusion that women are choosing to do this,” Gilchrest said.
While some people choose to partake in prostitution, many don’t have a choice, she said. Most girls under the age of 18 involved in the industry are abused, neglected or addicted to drugs, something that promoters take advantage of.
“It’s a very exploitive industry,” Gilchrest said, noting that things will only change “when we start speaking more about who these women actually are, and not just demonizing and criminalizing them.”
Prostitutes in the state are convicted “at a rate seven times that than those who are patronizing,” she added.
Often, it’s easier for police to arrest prostitutes during sting operations because most officers are men who can pose as someone looking to pay for sex, according to Gilchrest.
The International Institute of Connecticut, based in Bridgeport, seeks to help victims of human trafficking in the state, and holds a seat on the state’s Trafficking in Persons Council. Alicia Kinsman, director of legal services for the organization, said minor sex trafficking in the state is growing at a “disturbing” rate.
Fighting human sex trafficking “comes down to ensuring everyone is aware of what this crime is and who the victims are,” she said, noting that “hundreds” of victims come forward every year.
Most victims have a vulnerability that’s being exploited, Kinsman explained. Some are physically forced to have sex, while others are subject to psychological torture and threats, or are being paid in a drug they are addicted to.
“All of these factors are pulling them in and keeping them in a bad situation,” she said.
Children who have suffered trauma in their life are “inherently vulnerable to being victimized,” Kinsman added. “They’ve gone through this trauma already, and they think that sex with adults is normal. They’re craving attention, especially if they grew up without a supportive family. They’re looking for a family, some kind of support and attention, even if it’s negative.”