As you read these words, it's a safe bet that somewhere in Connecticut a young teenage girl is being forced to have sex with a stranger who paid to use her body.
She may be as young as 12. She may be hooked on drugs, or brutally battered if she refuses her pimp's demands. She may have been sold into the sexual trade by a member of her own family. She may have run away from home, or been lured by some manipulative bastard expert at spotting an emotionally vulnerable child. If she's blond and blue-eyed, she's twice as saleable as a young African American or Hispanic girl.
“It's everywhere,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Krishna Patel, who works in the U.S. Department of Justice's criminal division in this state, says of the sexual slavery of young women. “It's all over Connecticut ... from the southern part of the state to the northern part. It's all across the board.”
Connecticut's participation in the allied horrors of human trafficking and America's domestic prostitution industry was recently highlighted by a Vanity Fair article and a newly published book, The Berlin Turnpike, that both focused on a 2007 trial of a Hartford-area pimp named Dennis Paris.
The trial detailed a nightmare of sexual exploitation of young girls, beatings, death threats, drugs, pimp-paid sex ads in alternative newspapers like the Hartford Advocate or on the Internet.
It ended with Paris being convicted on all 21 federal charges and being sentenced to 30 years in prison.
National and state experts in human trafficking are quick to point out that neither Hartford nor Connecticut is unique.
People often think of sex trafficking as an international issue, with girls from Asia or Eastern Europe being brought to this country to work in brothels, says Teresa Younger, chair of Connecticut's Trafficking in Persons Council. “It's just as much a domestic problem … with American girls being trafficked into the sex trade.”
(Younger adds, however, that “Connecticut is a prime location” for the sex trade because of the three interstate highways running through the state and its proximity to Boston and New York City. “It makes it very easy for women to get brought into this state for the sex trade,” Younger says.)
One U.S. Department of Justice research project estimated that more than 250,000 American kids ages 10-17 are involved each year in “commercial sexual exploitation” ranging from child pornography to prostitution. According to congressional testimony last November, the researchers believe one-third of all street-level prostitutes are under age 18 and that at least half of “off-street” prostitutes are legally classed as children.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that the average entry age into the sex trade is 12-14 for girls and 11-13 for boys.
Estimates by different experts for the number of teens actively working as prostitutes ranges from 100,000 to 300,000, and there are federal and state officials who think those numbers are absurdly low.
Shaleen Silva is head of a nonprofit organization called the Paul and Lisa Program that has been working for 40 years to help women and children victimized by prostitution. She says Connecticut is one of a handful of states that have recently begun trying to track the actual numbers of kids involved in human trafficking and the sex trade.
Silva believes that, once hard data starts to be developed, “These numbers are going to start sky-rocketing.”
Patel, who prosecuted the Paris trial and a slew of other child prostitution cases in Connecticut, agrees.
“I feel like there's a complete tidal wave coming at us,” Patel says.
When Patel came to this state from New York in 2003, law enforcement types here told her that human trafficking and child prostitution “really wasn't happening here in Connecticut.”
“This is such a clandestine crime,” Patel explains, “one that's so hard to bring to the surface.”
State Superior Court Judge Raymond Norko, who runs Hartford's Community Court and routinely deals with prostitution arrests in the city, says human trafficking and child sex slavery is “a problem simmering below society's radar.”
One reason is that the young girls lured, forced or drugged into prostitution only rarely show up soliciting johns on the streets.
Norko says the average age of Hartford street prostitutes brought into his court is 44. The average fee for a sex act from a street-level prostitute is $20.
Pimps using young girls often charge higher fees, using ads to connect with johns and setting up assignations in local motels or hotels. These sophisticated operations often employ drivers to take girls from one sex job to the next, leaving the pimp insulated from direct involvement.
It becomes much more difficult for law enforcement to make arrests and prosecutions “become much more complicated,” Norko says.
Patel says young girls often bond with their pimps, or that the “fear factor is so high” that they refuse to complain to authorities. Police and prosecutors often have a minor picked up on prostitution charges “screaming at you for taking her away from her pimp.”
This type of sex business can also be extremely lucrative, with pimps requiring a single girl to make a minimum of $1,000 a day.
“If you're selling guns or drugs, you can only sell that item once,” says Silva. “If it's human beings, they can be sold multiple times a day.”
Patel is convinced that many of the pimps involved in human trafficking are former drug dealers or gang members drawn to prostitution because it is “so low-risk, so high-profit.”
She sees “a convergence” between the flood of illegal immigration and foreign sex trafficking of the 1980s and 1990s, the crackdown on U.S. drug crimes, and the continuing rise in domestic human trafficking in the sex industry. Patel's theory is that a great many American drug dealers convicted during that period learned how profitable and safe the sex trade could be while in prison.
Since 2003, dramatically increased federal efforts to crack down on sex slavery and human trafficking in the U.S. has led to a series of high-profile convictions in this state. Those included Paris and his allies, and a brutal New York pimp named Corey Davis who forced kids as young as 12 to dance in Bridgeport strip joints and turn tricks.
In January of this year, Jarell Sanderson of New Britain pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of children charges; and in February two Norwalk men and a New York cohort were indicted for bringing minor victims (14 and 17) across state lines for the purposes of prostitution. The latter case is still pending.
The apparent increase in the domestic sex trade and child prostitution has also generated controversy over pimps using ads on the Internet and in alternative newspapers to connect with johns. Silva and Patel say those types of ads make it easier for those in the sex trade to “market” their girls.
In 2010, pressure from state officials and growing public concern over the sex trade led Craigslist to cancel its “Adult” section where ads were often little more than thinly disguised prostitution ads. But the issue is far from simple.
“Adult sex ads are completely legal in our society,” says Patel. Alternative news operations and Internet sites that run them always respond to law enforcement inquiries by insisting they would never knowingly allow ads that involved child prostitution, she says.
Silva says halting sex ads in alternative publications might cause some problems for pimps, but acknowledges that, “No matter what you do, they're going to find another way.”
Joshua Mamis is publisher of New Mass Media, which is owned by the Tribune Company's Hartford Courant and publishes the Hartford Advocate, New Haven Advocate and Fairfield County Weekly. He provided the following statement when asked for comment on this story:
“Like most alternative publications, we legally provide advertising services to a wide variety of businesses with diverse and sometimes controversial messages, services and products. When questions arise about the lawfulness of an advertiser's operations, we fully cooperate with the investigating law enforcement agency that has the expertise and resources to make those determinations. We routinely examine our advertising standards and practices, including advertising relating to adult businesses, to ensure that we meet the needs of the community that we serve.”
Child prostitution in America is becoming a major issue not just because of high-profile convictions and new legislation designed to combat it, but also because people are now recognizing that teenagers in the sex trade are victims rather than criminals.
“A child who is 12 years old is never a prostitute,” says Patel. “Those children are being prostituted — they are victims.”
A major roadblock to federal and state efforts to help get kids out of the sex industry is the lack of the kind of intensive counseling and treatment programs these children desperately need. Silva says there are fewer than 20 beds in treatment facilities for “this specific population” of children rescued from the sex trade — that's fewer than 20 beds nationwide.
Patel says these children can be helped, but it requires intensive treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and the emotional traumas left from broken homes. The experience of being a child in the prostitution industry “is so horrifying that their entire personalities are destroyed,” explains Patel.
The economic recession has also triggered cuts in state funding for programs to help victims of the sex trade. Silva's organization had been providing treatment for 120 victims of commercial sexual exploitation each year referred by the Hartford Community Court. The $140,000 in public funding for the program has been cut, and Norko says the court and state officials have scrambled to patch together an alternative program.
Patel says the lack of services for these kids is a national dilemma:
“Our society is not equipped right now to provide children in prostitution with what they need.”