Connecticut's Child Trafficking Crisis

Connecticut has a serious problem with child sex trafficking, but the State's Attorney's Office says it never prosecutes these types of cases. This is a public health and safety issue that should concern everyone.

In a hearing before Connecticut State Legislators last week, Joette Katz, Director of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, told legislators that there have been 432 child victims of human trafficking in Connecticut since 2006, but only 28 cases have been prosecuted. All 28 trafficking cases were prosecuted by the Department of Justice, but none were brought by the State.

NPR reported that Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane and the Department of Justice pointed to a variety of reasons why the State won't enforce human trafficking laws, including a lack of law enforcement tools (e.g., Connecticut has no grand jury system). Kane also cited the fact that the State relies heavily on the "uncooperative" victim's testimony as evidence to bring a case forward.

"It's a special class of victims who do not want to cooperate with police," Kane told legislators, "who don't want to testify or give information against the pimps."

No, this is not an episode of Jimmy Neutron that relies on fifth graders to save the world. The victim blaming is especially frightening considering the serious public safety threat child sex predators pose to society and the number of [would be] sex offenders the State's Attorney may have allowed to remain unidentified, unprosecuted, and free to strike again.

Truthfully, I'm not really sure how hard authorities are trying to find and rescue victims of human trafficking.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's website shows that 19 Connecticut kids have been missing since 1974. Three were listed since 2014. Stack that up to the 148 kids missing from New York, or the 99 kids listed as missing in Massachusetts. Connecticut's three missing kids seems exceptional given that in Massachusetts, 75+ kids have been placed on the NCMEC list since 2014, the majority of whom are teenage girls.

As a parent, if my child went missing, I would raise a raucous in the media and enlist the public's help in finding them. That is why it is so strange to me that if you Google the kids missing from Massachusetts, their digital existence seems exceptionally nonexistent (especially for a group of teenagers).

How we count missing children is important. In 2014, former Massachusetts DCF Commissioner Olga Roche told WBUR that 129 foster kids were missing from state care. Roche discounted all of these cases as involving troubled "teen runaways" who were "fed up" with their DCF placements. Roche explained that DCF did not report kids missing provided that they called their social workers on the phone.

"They let them know that they're OK, they are safe, they are with friends," Roche said. "Sometimes they run away for a couple of weeks. Sometimes they run away for a couple of days. While we don't know specifically the address, they let us know that they're OK."

Roche later resigned under public pressure following a scandal involving children in the Department's care who died or went missing under her leadership. Massachusetts leaders later implemented DCF reforms, but I'm not sure why specifically the total number of kids missing in MA has dropped to 99.

Although I was unable to discover how many of the kids on the NCMEC list were in the custody of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families at the time they went missing, this government report says that nationally, between 50-80% of "runaways" may be sex trafficked kids involved with the foster care system. In other words, many kids written off as "runaways" are actually sex crime victims, not criminals. They are slaves who cannot legally consent to their own sexual solicitation.

In Connecticut, Katz told legislators that last year her department identified 133 child victims of human trafficking and that 98 percent of those kids had interacted with the department prior to being victimized.

According to Katz, "That's shameful, and that's something that we take, not just seriously but personally."

To be clear, foster kids are often in State custody precisely because their own parents have harmed or exploited them, and thus, are unfit to care for them. But even if foster kids do run away, their high-risk histories are all the more reason to go looking for them, not an excuse for the State to discharge its' own responsibility to report children missing, find, and protect them.

As SA Kane points out, exploited children are a class of victims that the State of Connecticut doesn't deal with. Whether evidence of child sex trafficking is ever "discovered" is largely a function of whether the State (which is in many cases also the child's legal guardian) decides to discover it and/or refer the case to law enforcement.

Hypothetically, let's say law enforcement locates all of the missing kids on the NCMEC list, and it turns out that most of them come from the foster care system. In the first place, that's a pretty big liability for the State to accept. Second, where to place all the sex trafficked kids? These are needs intensive cases that the State is probably ill equipped to handle. Trafficked kids may need specialized treatment and placements in order to recover and stay safe, and such placements are likely to be rare and expensive on a systemic level.

It must be really awful to be a child sex slave and know that even if society knows you are missing, no one is looking for you. That if you are found, you will probably be blamed for your own disappearance and trafficking.

That's a hard pill to swallow. Society is judged by how we treat the least among us, not by the ease by which we provide for those who need the least. We could, at the very least, start counting these kids as members of society worthy of identification and protection.