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.
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.”