Danielle Combs, Danielle Hottin and Sheila Hayre

Saying Something

There’s a lot people don’t know about trafficking.

So says Josh Mamis, media and marketing strategist for Love146, a New Haven-based nonprofit with a presence in Asia, the United Kingdom and the US and a mission to “end child trafficking and exploitation through survivor care and prevention.” Since 2014, Love146 has worked with 56 trafficked youth from greater New Haven. That number, says Cynthia Melendez, a survivor care worker for Love146, is believed to represent only a fraction of victims in the area.

Trafficking is “modern-day slavery,” as the US Department of Homeland Security defines it, involving “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Both adults and children can be victims. And despite the label “trafficking,” transport isn’t necessarily involved. Victims may be trafficked even while living at home.

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Kids may meet a trafficker on the street, Melendez says, but most of the time, they meet on social media. “This person will kind of prey on something regarding the youth, a vulnerability,” she says. For example: “‘My parents just don’t get me.’ ‘Well, I get you, you know, and I’ll take care of you’ and then that starts the grooming process for these kids.” In other cases, a peer at school who’s being trafficked recruits a classmate. “And they’re kids,” Melendez says. “So they may not understand exactly what’s happening to them.”

Warning signs for youth may include letting grades slip, sleeping in class because they’ve been up all night, dressing differently, spending excessive time on their phones or having more than one phone because their trafficker requires constant reporting, suddenly having money or gifts like new sneakers and jewelry, abusing substances, having a new tattoo. “There’s a lot of different red flags,” Melendez says. Love146 is currently running a series of TV public service announcements to help caregivers notice the signs, as well as teach them how to “step up and have that conversation with the youth about the dangers of Internet use.” The organization also offers a prevention education program called Not a #Number and trainings for professionals who work with children to help them understand and recognize trafficking.

Whether victims are children or adults, “we are a hotbed for this because of 95 and because traffickers try to avoid detection by continuing to move, and we are right between two major cities,” says Sheila Hayre, a visiting associate professor at the Quinnipiac University School of Law. Like Melendez, she believes official data indicates just “the tip of the iceberg.” In 2017—the last year for which complete statistics are available—the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 8,524 cases, a number that has been rising each year. That doesn’t necessarily mean things are getting worse, Hayre says. Instead, she believes people are becoming more educated and therefore getting better at recognizing and reporting the phenomenon.

Hayre has run trainings through a collaboration with Grace Farms Foundation, a New Canaan group aiming “to advance good in the world”; the Department of Children and Families (DCF); and the Connecticut Bar Association’s Committee on Human Trafficking, with an assist from Marriott Hotels and anti-trafficking organizations Polaris and ECPAT. Trainings have been held for healthcare workers in hospitals and at hotels, where sex trafficking often occurs.

“We train the hotel employees based on where they work in the hotel,” Hayre says. For example, cleaners are taught to look for warning signs such as “do not disturb” signs left out for too long, discarded cash cards, fast food containers, condoms and lubricant and excessive requests for new towels and sheets. At some hotels, she says, patrons aren’t required to show ID in order to check in, leaving no trail for law enforcement.

At Quinnipiac Law School’s Civil Justice Clinic, Hayre’s students are currently working on two trafficking cases, which helps not only underprivileged or disadvantaged clients but also students, who “learn a little bit more about the nuances of trafficking,” Hayre says. The law school will be hosting a public symposium on sex trafficking specifically this Friday, March 22, featuring experts, advocates and survivors to “explore challenges” and “showcase innovative solutions” to the problem.

In the meantime, organizations like Love146 receive referrals from DCF and continue to work on the front lines doing “rapid response” as well as long-term care for youth survivors of sex trafficking and youth identified as being high-risk. As a survivor care worker, Melendez’s job is “advocating for them, counseling them, supporting them to help reintegrate into society after any situation that’s happened, … making sure that they’re getting proper services.” The list is long. “We pretty much do as much as we can, and we work with them long-term.” Even after a case is closed, a client can call back for more support.

What can the rest of us do? Love146 offers information for parents, and if you suspect you’ve got a lead on a trafficking situation, Hayre warns, “Don’t be a vigilante, because that’s where you endanger yourself and you endanger people around you and you endanger the victim.” She says the best thing you can do is report it, with the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) seeming to be the avenue of choice.

Or, as the familiar refrain coined by Homeland Security puts it, “If you see something, say something.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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