Courtesy of Christine Palm of the PCSW
Chief States Attorney Kevin Kane (Courtesy of Christine Palm of the PCSW)

State officials and experts tried to figure out Thursday why there have been no human trafficking convictions in Connecticut after a law, passed a decade ago, made it a felony.

But there were no easy answers.

What people in attendance heard repeatedly from experts was that state law has to stop targeting children as prostitutes — some of whom have been as young as 12 years old — and go after the men who recruit them to be sex slaves.

“We need to go after the pimps,” Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said. “A lot of times the victims do not want to cooperate with police. Many are in love with their pimps.”

Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, co-chairwoman of the Children’s Committee, said she was “shocked” to learn when researching the subject that prostitutes were twice as likely to be arrested as their pimps.

“We can’t be focusing our efforts on arresting the prostitute,” Urban said. “They are the victims.”

Trafficking in persons has been a felony in Connecticut since 2006, when the General Assembly passed Public Act 06-43. And yet, on the 10th anniversary of its passage, Connecticut has had absolutely no convictions for the crime despite 10 arrests.

An informational forum sponsored by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and the Judiciary, Public Safety and Security, and Children’s Committees was held in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford Thursday. In attendance were legislators, advocates for children, and law enforcement officials who deal with the issue of human trafficking.

Many of the speakers also repeated another theme — that the state’s law is inferior to the federal legislation in place to pursue, arrest, and convict those who prey upon children in the human trafficking field.

“The feds are doing it better,” DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said. “They have more liberal legislation, more resources devoted to going after human trafficking.”

And Deidre Daly, U.S. Attorney for the state of Connecticut, added that she does not want people to think there has been inactivity in this area. “Human trafficking has been a top priority in my office,” Daly said. “But the fed statute is easier to prove. The feds have a grand jury system and subpoena power” that are not available to state authorities.

Daly added that another reason the federal law is often used, instead of state law, is that human trafficking cases can cross state lines. “A case that starts in Milford may wind up with an arrest in another state,” Daly said.

Several of the speakers suggested the word prostitute should not even be used — that children are simply victims.

Although there have been no convictions, the crime of trafficking is very real and poses a threat to hundreds of women and children in Connecticut, according to the Trafficking in Persons Council (TIPC).

For example, the Department of Children and Families has received more than 400 referrals of individuals with high-risk indicators for human trafficking. Anti-trafficking experts agree on the need for a collaborative response among law enforcement, DCF, the State’s Attorney’s Office, and other service providers.

“The number of referrals that DCF has received for youth at risk or confirmed victims of sex trafficking has increased from two in 2008, to 44 in 2012, to 132 last year,” Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, co-chairwoman of the Children’s Committee, said.

“Obviously DCF’s education, identification and recovery efforts are working very well,” Bartolomeo added. “What we need to focus on now is support of the law enforcement component. Multiple arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations will not only erode the sex trafficking industry in Connecticut, but will send a very clear message that those who engage in this type of crime will be arrested and imprisoned.”

When legislators in attendance asked what more the state could do to tackle the human trafficking issue, Daly was direct: “You need boots on the ground,” she said, adding that local police departments need to make targeting this type of crime a priority. “You need resources,” she reiterated.

Dora B. Schriro, Commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, agrees that current state law is inadequate.

Schriro wasn’t at the forum Thursday but submitted a letter with her criticism of the current state law on sex trafficking.

“Troopers encounter a significant impediment to both the arrest and conviction of persons involved in sex trafficking,’’ said Schriro. “As written, the felony crime of trafficking in persons requires more than one occurrence of sexual contact or more than occurrence of labor services to be used as a charge.

“During the course of a State Police investigation, if a trooper discovers evidence that an individual is being sexually assaulted or held against their will, the trooper will arrest the responsible party. None of us would expect any less. There is seldom a circumstance where law enforcement will wait for a second occurrence of abuse to make an arrest,’’ Schriro said.

Legislators called Thursday’s forum informative and instructive and said they came away from it determined to keep the issue on the front burner.

“Connecticut has made great strides to protect vulnerable women and children with strong laws against human trafficking, and resources to help them escape from the horrors of human trafficking, yet we are still behind when it comes to prosecution of the criminals who perpetrate such heinous offenses,” Rep. Rosa C. Rebimbas, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said. “We will continue to press for stronger laws to protect Connecticut residents, and to bring justice on their behalf.”