If you think we’re immune to HUMAN TRAFFICKING, consider this: One of the most downloaded pornographic photos in the world was taken of an eight-year-old girl RIGHT HERE IN GREENWICH
Krishna Patel, a former federal prosecutor in Connecticut, and Rod Khattabi, a former special agent based in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s New Haven office, are two of the state’s leading authorities on human trafficking. They are sitting in the tea pavilion at Grace Farms in New Canaan, talking about trafficking cases they have worked here in leafy, affluent Fairfield County; they are talking about pimps, johns and assorted creeps; about massage parlors, strip bars and nail salons; about assignations between Jeffrey Epstein-aged men and girls as young as twelve at hotels and motels in our Gold Coast towns. “This happens in Greenwich,” Patel says. “It happens in Fairfield. It happens in Westport and in all of these towns.”
Let’s begin with the case of Theodore Briggs of Norwalk. Only twenty-three years old in 2011, the year he was arrested, Briggs lived an unaccountably posh lifestyle, tooling about in a Hummer and a BMW and dressing himself in Gucci clothing. He hoped to be a rapper and looked the part, but in fact the cars and the clothing, not to mention the wads of cash he carried, had been earned by his stable of prostitute-victims.
In the lexicon of his trade, Briggs was a “Romeo pimp,” one who woos and flatters girls into his fold, rather than a “gorilla pimp,” who rules by violence, usually with the help of a “bottom bitch,” a female right hand who sits atop the prostitute hierarchy. “He was a really smooth, savvy pimp,” recalls Khattabi, who led the Briggs investigation.
“He never brutalized his girls.” Briggs had the pimp’s knack for scenting out vulnerable young women, girls who had come from broken homes or suffered from poor self-esteem. “He would groom them and sort of become their boyfriend.” Khattabi gazes out the pavilion’s broad glass windows to the tranquil fields beyond. He has a granite face and deep-set eyes that lend him an intimidating air; it’s a relief to discover that he’s a gentle, jovial soul. “When we interviewed these girls, they felt like we were destroying their lives,” he says. “Because this was a guy who’s been so good to them, okay? He was providing them with what we think of as a family. And they were glad to give him the money. All the money.”
At least two of Briggs’s girls were under eighteen years old. In other words, they were trafficked, since the law presumes a minor can’t engage in prostitution voluntarily. (State law prohibits those under eighteen from being prosecuted for prostitution—a fairly recent and much lauded change.) One of Briggs’s girls kept a diary in which she sketched hearts and flowers, as befit her age: fourteen. In the diary she noted with heartbreaking approval, “He was the one who turned me into a real ho.”
Briggs sold the girls in the new way: over the internet. His venue of choice was backpage.com, a notorious classified advertising website that held a virtual monopoly on internet prostitution. Federal agencies shuttered Backpage last year, but numerous imitation sites have popped up to fill the demand. “Come and do anything you want to me. I love getting it everywhere,” runs a typical ad on a Backpage imitator called Bedpage, under the heading “Connecticut, Bridgeport.” Interested parties click the link, send a text, and the transaction is carried out at a (probably) unwitting hotel or motel in the vicinity. (In 2016, Connecticut became the first state to require hotel and motel staff to be trained to spot trafficking; Patel helped draft the law, but admits that it’s still an uphill battle. Trafficking occurs in hotels from Greenwich to the Berlin Turnpike outside Hartford, she says, and all the way up to the casinos at the eastern end of the state.)
“It’s like ordering a pizza,” observes Elizabeth Boolbol, who founded the Greenwich-based Partnership to End Human Trafficking, or PEHT, in 2015. “You can order a woman to your hotel room. You don’t have to stand out on 42nd Street and proposition somebody.”
Khattabi found that Briggs had received 6,000 text messages from clients in six weeks, and that those clients lived all over the county, including in Greenwich and Westport, and as far away as Atlantic City. In 2012 Judge Janet C. Hall sentenced Briggs to ten years in prison. “You took children who had no idea of this life and ruined theirs,” she told him. “I have difficulty comprehending how one person can sell another.”
Patel, the founding director of Grace Farms Foundation’s Justice Initiative, is a petite woman with luxuriant, coffee-dark hair. She prosecuted many cases that Khattabi—Grace Farms Foundation’s Global Justice Training Director and Risk Officer—investigated, including the Briggs case. “The thing that was so heinous,” she says, “was that Backpage actually became complicit, masking the fact that these girls were minors.” How so? Backpage would delete transparently coded ad lingo like “Lolita” and “Amber alert,” and thereby cover up the fact that it was enabling a brisk trade in child rape.
Strange to say that Briggs’s victims could have been less lucky: They could have fallen prey to a gorilla pimp like Corey “Magnificent” Davis, one of Patel’s most memorable cases. “He’d gang rape these girls,” she says. “He’d beat them. He’d cut them.” And he’d stomp on them with his Timberland boots, or his “Tims,” as he liked to call them.
One of Davis’s victims was a twelve-year-old runaway from New York. Though based at Bishop’s Corner Café, a strip club in Bridgeport, her meetings with johns took place at hotels up and down Connecticut’s I-95 corridor. Often Davis required her to work twelve hours and bring in a thousand dollars a day. “When we went to the strip club in Bridgeport to confirm that that’s where she was working,” Patel says, “they told us she would come in with a teddy bear.” And when she was placed in protective custody for a period, “she asked for Harry Potter books.”
Davis kept some of his victims confined to a two-family house owned by his mother in Queens, New York. One girl, a seventeen-year-old, initially went there (she thought) to look at an apartment offered for rent. Davis seized her cell phone and ID and locked her in the house. So began this young woman’s life of forced prostitution. Working out of Bridgeport’s Pleasant Moments strip club, she suffered regular beatings at Davis’s hands; sometimes Davis hit her with a handgun, and once he put the muzzle in her mouth.
She told investigators, “I had to tell people I fell off the stage because I had so many bruises on my ribs, face and legs .… I have a permanent twitch in my eye from him hitting me in my face so much. I have none of my irreplaceable things from my youth.”
Davis is serving twenty-five years in prison.
EVEN CLOSER TO HOME
Stories like these may seem far removed from any experience a Greenwich girl or boy is likely to have. And they are. Sort of. But sex trafficking (we’ll deal with labor trafficking later) happens in myriad ways, not all of them gritty and streetwise. Indeed, trafficking could be going on in the house next door.
Take the case of William Oehne. In 2004 Oehne was a truck driver living in Stamford and dating a woman who lived in Greenwich with her eight-year-old daughter. Oehne moved in. Then came the grooming—the gradual bending of a victim to the perpetrator’s will—done with gifts and promises and subtle threats, as he moved to sexualize the relationship. Oehne’s process began with the flaunting of his “nudist philosophy.” He would walk around naked in front of the girl, or surprise her as a “prank” when she was taking a shower. He’d show her pornography. He told her she could be a model. He began touching her sexually and persuading her to pose nude for his camera. He took explicit photos of the girl over the course of three years, and those photos found an avid following among pedophiles, turning up in 3,300 criminal investigations in the United States alone.
But the big break came from overseas. “French Interpol figured out that the number one downloaded [pornographic] image in the entire world was an image of this girl, and they thought from the background that she must be American,” says Patel, who prosecuted Oehne. Interpol had magnified the photo and discovered in the background a commemorative plate with a girl’s first name and her apparent birth date. The FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, together with the Greenwich Police Department, astutely traced her to Greenwich. (Greenwich Captain of Detectives Robert Berry gives particular credit to Detective Christy Girard.) Investigation showed that Oehne’s crimes might have gone deeper but for the girl’s resistance: Under questioning, Oehne admitted that he and a male porn actor took her to a hotel in Stamford. She refused to go inside.
After his arrest, Oehne “shamefully tried to claim that it was in fact the minor victim who seduced him and even suggested that he was powerless to refuse,” said the prosecution’s sentencing memo. In 2011 Oehne was convicted of sexual assault and creating and disseminating child pornography, and sentenced to forty-five years in prison.
But did he traffick the girl? Here we come to an evolving definition of what trafficking means. Robert Berry says that Oehne’s crimes, though “a tragic example of the horrors that can be exacerbated through the internet,” do not constitute human trafficking by Connecticut law, and he’s right. Krishna Patel says that federal law sees the matter more broadly, and she’s right, too.
According to the groundbreaking Trafficking Victim Protection Act of 2000, minor sex trafficking is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining” of a person under eighteen for “a commercial sex act.” A commercial sex act is defined as “anything of value,” and pornography certainly qualifies. (Patel says Oehne could have been charged federally with sex trafficking, but that, in this case, the child pornography charges were more straightforward.)
The essence of both sex and labor trafficking is exploitation—compelled work, Patel says. In producing pornographic photos, William Oehne coerced his young victim into doing “work” that had commercial value. The photos are still circulating today. As U.S. Attorney David B. Fein observed, the girl “will continue to be victimized by traders and viewers of child pornography for the rest of her life.”
Tammy Sneed, the director of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families’ Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team (HART), laments that efforts to align state law with federal law at the trafficking-pornography nexus have failed in our legislature. “It’s been very painful,” she says. “We’ve tried for the last couple of years to change it. Hopefully we will this term.”
When Rod Khattabi is asked what his most memorable case was, he says “Sensi,” and goes quiet for a moment. Edgardo Sensi, a stout man with graying curls and a goatee, was working in Westport in the early 2000s when he began videotaping himself raping an eight-year-old girl who lived in Fairfield. “He was an executive with a big travel company, and he was an opera singer. He sang in church. He had a YouTube video of himself singing ‘Ave Maria,’ beautifully.” Khattabi shakes his head. “What really disturbed me,” he continues, “was the violence he used.” Beyond the rape itself? “I don’t want to get too graphic. He used electrical wires on her private parts. She was screaming in the video.”
It gets worse. The girl’s mother was fully complicit, coaching her daughter how to touch Sensi and perform oral sex on him. Khattabi later had a chance to question the woman. “I asked, ‘As a mother, how can you do this?’ I was really puzzled. ‘You gave birth to this girl.’ I’ll always remember this—she said, ‘Look at me.’ She was pretty heavy; she had such low self-esteem. ‘Look at me. I just didn’t want to lose him.’”
Patel recalls the day in 2008 that they arrested the mother and pulled the daughter, then in ninth grade, out of school. “I sent a team in to interview her,” she says. “The entire time, she denied anything had happened.”
This girl was not Sensi’s only victim. In 2004, Sensi traveled to Nicaragua with a small charitable organization based in Fairfield County.
He befriended a nineteen-year-old maid from a destitute town outside Managua, showered her with gifts and money, and promised her family that he would marry her. But, reminding the maid that he was “a powerful man,” Sensi trafficked her—coerced her to have sex with other men. The woman had a four-year-old daughter. Once in Fairfield County, Sensi used his relationship with the mother to molest the daughter, the mother again taking part. Yet another victim said she had twice attempted suicide.
In 2012 this so-called “Hitler of child pornography” was sentenced to life in prison; the girl’s mother was given what Patel considers a lenient eight years. (She and Khattabi report that, with extensive therapy, the girl has recovered nicely.)
It’s not only girls who are trafficked. In Connecticut, the most diabolical of recent cases centers on Bruce Bemer of Glastonbury, a millionaire who paid for sex with young adult men procured by a Danbury trailer park resident named Robert King. King selected mentally ill and drug-prone men at group homes and rehab centers from Stamford to Danbury and drew them into a cycle of predation: He would befriend them, press cocaine on them, run up their drug tab, then prostitute them to Bemer to pay it off—a kind of debt bondage. The young men said they were threatened with death if they told anyone; one of fifteen who came forward may have committed suicide. And yet, King told police, “My only crime is trying to help people.” (He pleaded guilty to human trafficking charges last year, and was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.)
This past spring, a jury in Danbury convicted Bemer on four counts of patronizing a trafficked person and one count of criminal liability for trafficking a person; Judge Robin Pavia sentenced him to ten years in prison. While Bemer admits to using prostitutes supplied by King for more than twenty years, he denies the more serious trafficking charge and is appealing the conviction. A civil suit, meanwhile, accuses Bemer of having unprotected sex with his victims while knowingly being infected with HIV.
The Bemer-King case reflects a very twenty-first century understanding of human trafficking. Before the Trafficking Victim Protection Act took effect in 2001, Patel says, “we weren’t prosecuting these cases very well,” because the idea of coercion was so narrowly construed. Psychological coercion wasn’t even a thing. To the contrary, the U.S. Supreme Court, in what’s known as the Kozminski decision of 1988, ruled that “involuntary servitude” meant using violence or threats to secure the work, “what you think of in the transatlantic slave trade” of our brutal past, Patel says. In that worldview, Robert King would have gone free and his victims would have been arrested, since they weren’t physically forced into prostitution but were “merely” desperate.
When we turn the discussion to minors, it’s not desperation so much as vulnerability that leads down the trafficking rabbit hole. Adolescence itself is a vulnerability, of course. Add low self-esteem, or depression, or ostracization from a friend group, and quite suddenly even kids from stable families can find themselves gaining the attentions of a trafficker.
“Malls are where a lot of recruitment happens,” Elizabeth Boolbol says. “Traffickers hang around malls because girls hang out there all the time. It’s frightening. There’s this documentary where they interviewed a pimp in jail, and he’s talking about how he recruits these girls. He’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so beautiful,’ and if the girl says thank you, he just sort of moves on. But if the girl sort of puts her head down and says, ‘No, I’m not,’ he’s like, ‘Boom—that’s the one.’ They start a conversation, they get a cup of coffee…” she trails off, sighing.
The trafficker makes himself a source of comfort and even love. “He tells the girl, ‘I know your mother sucks, I know your father sucks, but don’t worry, I’m here for you, I’ll give you what you need,’” Boolbol says. He might secretly post her picture to Bedpage. He might give her heroin. “Once that happens, there’s an addiction, and the addiction needs to be fed. And he says, ‘Just sleep with my friend and we’ll get some money, and we can get more heroin.’ Pretty soon she’s sleeping with five people and the trafficker has moved on. That’s the sad, awful story that happens in this country.”
A nasty variation on this story concerns the online world, says Alicia Kinsman, senior attorney for the Bridgeport-based Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants (CIRI), whose Project Rescue deals specifically with trafficking victims. A trafficker forms a relationship with a teen on social media, and over time persuades her to send sexually explicit pictures or video. Then he betrays his true intent: “He’ll say, ‘I need you to do this other thing, and if you don’t, I’m going to send your parents the pictures and the video; I’m going to send it to everyone in your school.’”
The electronic universe, in fact, knows no boundaries. Krishna Patel says it has “collapsed” sex trafficking and child pornography into a truly evil thing: private live-cam sex clubs “where the only way you can participate is by showing images of yourself abusing a child. They know law enforcement can’t do that.” Some distant server beams you into a private house in Russia or Ukraine, in Cambodia or Thailand, and you get to watch the child abuse as it happens. “Some people want very, very, very young children. Like babies. And they pay a lot of money. It’s just become a ridiculously disturbing world.”
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Though trafficking is an age-old practice, it strikes us as a twenty-first century phenomenon because it’s expanding so rapidly, and because we have a better understanding of the staggering numbers: Roughly 40 million humans are enslaved in some fashion—more than at any other time in history, according to the Polaris Project, which seeks to eradicate global human trafficking. Trafficking is now the second largest criminal industry in the world, after drug dealing. “It is so insanely profitable—much more profitable than weapons or drugs, because you sell ‘the product’ multiple times a day,” Elizabeth Boolbol says. “There really is no cost of goods, it’s just recruitment.” A look of revulsion briefly crosses her face. “And demand is sooo high.” But most Americans, ignorant of the scope of the problem, do not rank it as a pressing concern. “We have to get people to stop thinking it’s only happening in India or Cambodia or Bangladesh. They need to know that it’s happening here, and it’s growing.”
So far, we have dealt only with the sex trafficking of young Americans. This is but one facet of the problem—the one we know best in Fairfield County. Another facet is the sex trafficking of internationals. Young women from Eastern Europe—where trafficking is depressingly, brutally rampant—who come to the United States often end up being trafficked out of strip clubs, working off the debt to those who brought them here.
“A lot of these women come from Russia or Romania thinking they’ll work as models or have some kind of better job,” Khattabi says. “Then all of a sudden they have to work in these strip joints.” (He notes that he’s done many “blitzes” in Bridgeport in tandem with local police. “We closed down so many of them here in Connecticut, but they pop up again. I don’t know what the solution is.”)
Asian women, particularly Chinese, North Korean and Vietnamese, are trafficked not out of strip clubs, but massage parlors. “That entire illicit massage industry is thriving,” Krishna Patel says. “You can go on websites right now and you’re going to find it all through Connecticut. Law enforcement goes into these chat rooms and will find the johns actually giving ratings to all the women.” (In 2017 a massage parlor on Greenwich Avenue was busted for prostitution. Neither of the two employees arrested, Xue Mei Jiang and Yuhong Zeng, were found to be trafficked, said police, though both lived in Flushing, Queens, a nexus for Asian human trafficking.)
Alicia Kinsman, of CIRI, recalls a case of hers in which an undocumented woman from China answered an ad in a Chinese newspaper: A massage parlor in Connecticut was looking to hire. “She was desperate for work, desperate to survive,” Kinsman says. “If you’re undocumented, you don’t have that many options. What they wanted her to do was perform commercial sexual acts. She was threatened that if she objected, if she left, she would be arrested and deported. And so she stayed.” She was forced to live in a virtual closet in the strip mall where she worked, security cameras monitoring all her movements. “Eventually she just ran out and down the strip mall, until she found somebody who helped her call the police.”
Human trafficking is sometimes called a crime “hidden in plain sight.” This is especially true of labor trafficking, whose victims, usually foreign-born, work in the metaphorical light of day, on farms, in factories, at construction sites, in hotels and restaurants, on our lawns, in our neighbors’ homes. “The trafficking cases I’ve seen in Connecticut that are recent and active have been domestic servitude,” Kinsman says. “Individuals held in deplorable conditions in wealthy households in lower Fairfield County.”
Contrary to popular belief, many trafficked laborers enter the country legally, on temporary worker visas. One woman Project Rescue worked with, a Filipina, came legally as a nanny to a foreign family living temporarily in Easton. But when the family decided to stay permanently “they took her passport and ripped up the contract,” Kinsman says. “Eventually she escaped by literally running out the door.”
Project Rescue, established in 2006 to serve chiefly foreign-born trafficking victims, sees a startling range of cases. There are undocumented kids put to work by an extended family member, or by someone who posed as one. There are foreign-born women enslaved by their citizen husbands. There are tree-cutters, tobacco-farm laborers, hotel workers. Not long ago, an undocumented middle-aged man, speaking little English and having no money, walked through CIRI’s door after escaping from a Fairfield County horse farm.
Though Project Rescue has not dealt with them in Connecticut, nail salon workers are believed to be highly trafficked. “When we talk about ‘typologies,’ we talk about industries that draw trafficking,” says Krishna Patel. “Nail salons fall under the typologies in the trafficking world.” As with illicit spas, they are almost exclusively Asian, and some salons offer (far more profitable) sex services on the sly. Of course, scads of law-abiding nail salons exist. But until May of this year, Connecticut invited trafficking in salons by being the only state in the country that did not require an operating license or mandatory training.
When labor trafficking is discovered, what is the fate of the trafficked? It’s little understood that international human trafficking and immigration law are intimately braided. And so when the Trump administration dramatically tightened immigration policies (“America is full,” the president declared), victims of trafficking took a direct hit. Many specific policy changes appear to be small, and the public will never notice them—such as the new obstacles in applying for humanitarian visas. (The “T” visa is specifically for trafficking victims; the “U” visa is for crime victims including trafficked persons.) These obstacles terrify applicants. In the past, a person who reports being trafficked but is denied a T visa would have other avenues to exhaust and could remain in the country; now, says Alicia Kinsman, that person “will be put into removal proceedings.” Worse, say immigration lawyers, T visas are harder to get than ever.
One Project Rescue client now fighting deportation is from Central America’s perilous Northern Triangle. (Kinsman does not specify the country, but she would mean Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.) “The only reason he’s in this position is because he came forward and reported what happened to him to law enforcement,” Kinsman says. Denied a T visa, the man’s prospects look bleak. If he goes back to the Triangle? “There’s a presumption that you have money. You were here, so you must’ve been working, so you must be rich. You’re a target for gangs to extort.”
The Trump administration’s aggressive stance has strained relations between Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and do-good nonprofits like Project Rescue. ICE and such groups used to work harmoniously to establish the facts of a trafficking case and situate victims. “We still do work with them, but they are under a lot of pressure,” Kinsman says. “I no longer feel comfortable having my clients interviewed by ICE agents, because I know the position that they’re in, and it’s too risky.”
ARE WE CONTRIBUTING?
What about the rest of the world? With all the trafficking going on in our own country, it seems too much to have to worry about slaves in African mines or Indian quarries or Chinese sweatshops. And yet here is why we must: We’re part of the problem. We are consumers of goods made by slaves.
Our tech toys—computers, cell phones and electric cars—top the list: Their lithium ion batteries contain cobalt, mined mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under brutal conditions, sometimes by children as young as seven. “This is every Apple, every Samsung, every Tesla,” says Krishna Patel, “and they’re not doing anything to clear up the supply chains.” (Tesla has said it hopes to establish a North American supply chain.) “You add to it all the other stuff needed, coltan, tungsten, and it’s a nightmare. There are so few places you can get these minerals. If you look right now, there isn’t one tech company that can claim a slave-free supply chain.”
Garments, fish, cocoa and sugar round out the top five slave-made and harvested goods we consume (though the U.S. Department of Labor reports that 148 goods from seventy-five countries are made by forced and child labor).
There are about 2.1 million child “chocolate slaves” in West Africa the source of 70 percent of the world’s cocoa. Some of these children were abducted from their villages; many were sold into slavery for as little as thirty dollars. BBC documentarians asked one slave boy what he thought about faraway people enjoying the fruits of his labor. “They are enjoying something that I suffered to make,” he told them. “They are eating my flesh.”
Commercial fishing is even more notorious. Low-income countries like Thailand and Cambodia specialize in catching “forage” fish, such as anchovies, sardines and krill, used to make our pet food and to feed our pigs, poultry and farm-raised fish. (The U.S. is the biggest consumer of Thai fish.) According to a report in the New York Times, seagoing slaves who managed to flee their captors told stories of “the sick cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a dark, fetid fishing hold.”
Few large clothing companies have slave-free supply chains. If you buy clothing at Walmart, for example, you can be pretty sure that slaves made it in a country like Bangladesh. “I think it’s just so critically important to tell people that if you’re spending six dollars on a dress, that dress was made by a slave,” says Elizabeth Boolbol. “The economics just don’t work, unless the person making it is not getting paid a living wage.”
This knowledge, she suggests, ought to make us reconsider how we buy things in the age of global commerce. “The whole idea of disposable clothes, disposable items, disposable everything, and we need to get it now, we need to get it cheap—that has really fueled the labor trafficking.”
According to the International Labour Organization, 24.9 million people are trapped in forced labor, and 4.8 million in forced sexual exploitation (another several million are in forced marriages). “The labor trafficking issue is a much bigger issue than the sex trafficking issue,” Patel says, and one that Grace Farms Foundation has begun to tackle. “There is so much we can do about it as a society—if we just decide to.”
We can start by educating ourselves. We can buy “fair trade” coffee and chocolate and seek out sustainably grown foods. We can patronize clothing stores with transparent supply chains; we can buy goods made by trafficking survivors. We can stay abreast of groups that give us news of trafficking, like Human Rights Watch, the Polaris Project, End Slavery Now, and closer to home, Grace Farms and the Partnership to End Human Trafficking.
Elizabeth Boolbol thinks Americans have a special obligation to fight human trafficking. “We’re a country founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and yet we have slavery as a stain on our own history,” she says. “So we know better. America has to lead. And I think rich communities like Greenwich need to step in. We may not be able to cure cancer, but we can do this.”
SPECIFIC BEHAVIORS THAT CAN SHED LIGHT ON A VERY DARK SITUATION
We typically think of the sex-trafficked kid as a runaway. To be sure, runaways are in acute danger of being trafficked. “Studies show that within forty-eight hours of running away, a third have been approached by a trafficker,” Tammy Sneed, director of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families’ Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team (HART), informs us. “And one in seven are pulled into ‘the life,’” as prostitution is colloquially known. If a runaway were to alight at a busy traveling hub like the Port Authority in New York, she would be approached by a trafficker in a matter of seconds.
But most victims never leave their parents’ homes. HART keeps statistics on trafficked Connecticut minors (or possibly trafficked, because certain cases take months to sort out), and so can tell us that of the 212 minors referred to it in 2017, 141 lived with a parent or guardian, and only twenty-six were runaways or otherwise AWOL. Another twenty-two lived in foster care at the time of their possible trafficking. (Almost a quarter of the 2017 referrals, forty-nine of the 212, came from our neck of the woods, coastal Fairfield County.) There are doubtless hundreds of trafficked teens who never enter HART’s orbit, given the hidden nature of sex trafficking, but the statistics do give us an understanding of one important fact: Our teens can be trafficked while they’re living under our roofs, and we are none the wiser.
THINGS TO NOTICE AT HOME.
• Frequent unexplained absences, even brief ones
• Disappearing for a weekend
• New clothing or items that the child can’t afford
• New hairstyles and manicures that the child can’t afford
• The presence of a companion who answers for the child
• A tattoo that the child is reluctant to explain, especially on the neck or lower back
• Bruises, and medical and dental issues
• Signs of malnourishment
• A change in language to reflect “the life”
• A change in demeanor: tense, anxious, secretive, defensive
• Always carrying a bag with a change of clothes
• Having more than one cell phone
One or two of these things may not mean much in themselves; there is no foolproof checklist. We have to look at our children whole, and pay attention to any gut uneasiness that tells us something is wrong.
TO EXTEND YOUR AWARENESS OUTSIDE THE HOME, THESE ARE THE THINGS TO LOOK FOR.
• At airports and hotels, the presence of a teen with an older man that does not appear to be a relative
• Seemingly unaccompanied teens at busy rest stops, such as on I-95
• An adult who does not allow a teen or child to speak for themselves
• In certain business establishments, notably nail salons, workers who appear timid and withdrawn
• Workers whose responses to questions seem shallow and scripted
• Signs of excessive security measures, like security cameras and barred windows
• Signs of living quarters in an establishment
• A boss who seems overly watchful and controlling
The Polaris Project (polarisproject.org) runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline. If you need assistance, call the hotline at 888-373-7888, or text “befree” (233733). Or, if you believe a child is being trafficked or suffering abuse or neglect, you can call the Connecticut DCF careline at 800-842-2288.
A MODERN-DAY ABOLITIONIST
TAKING ACTION RIGHT HERE IN GREENWICH
ELIZABETH KOLDYKE BOOLBOL is a tall, slender blonde with a background in public relations, marketing and real estate. She is also a devout Christian from a family steeped in doing civic good: Her parents, Mike and the late Pat Koldyke, are noted Chicago philanthropists with a particular interest in education and handgun control.
Boolbol’s area is human trafficking. The Greenwich resident founded the Partnership to End Human Trafficking (PEHT) after reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s 2015 book A Path Appears, an account of humanitarians who are changing the world. One woman the authors profiled was Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms in Nashville, a place of regeneration for victims of prostitution and sex trafficking. Sex trafficking had seemed a distant issue to Boolbol then, as it does to many now. “But once you know about it,” says the married mother of four, “it’s hard to turn away.”
As for prostitution, “I grew up watching Pretty Woman, so I’m as guilty as anybody else” of not giving the subject serious thought. But she began to wonder, was prostitution ever really voluntary? “Becca Stevens always says that there’s no such thing, really, as prostitution in the way we think about it—that a woman chooses to do this as a business, to make money. What little girl says, ‘I want to be a prostitute when I grow up’?” (She notes that some trafficking victims think they’re acting of their own accord and have a strange, Stockholm syndrome–like attachment to their pimps.)
The women at Thistle Farms do two-year residencies; they’re provided the basics, like food, healthcare and clothing, and a loving space to heal. They also learn new job skills. The women manufacture healthful bath, beauty and home products sold under the now-national Thistle Farms brand. (The women can continue working for Thistle Farms after their residencies are over.) “That’s the model that Thistle Farms has been doing for twenty years, and they’ve had like a 95 percent success rate, which is unheard of in this arena.”
In the United States, roughly 100,000 young people are sex trafficked each year. Given that number, there simply aren’t enough Thistle Farms–like places to go around, and so Becca Stevens encourages sister groups to help carry the mission.
The Partnership to End Human Trafficking is one such group. Its organizing strategy is to “educate, embrace, empower,” Boolbol says. “We have to galvanize the community if this is going to be a success.” Embrace the victims by opening a residence for them in Stamford or Norwalk in the very near future: “If a child is trafficked, they go to DCF, the Department of Children and Families. But once that child is eighteen, there’s really nothing. That’s the gap we’re trying to address.”
And finally, empower the women through “social enterprise,” or dignified work that teaches them new skills, as Thistle Farms does. PEHT’s enterprise focuses on making and selling pet products, from essential oils and tick repellants to collars and leashes.
In May, Boolbol held a fundraiser at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich; it raised over $150,000 and drew more than 200 people. “They couldn’t believe this stuff is happening right here in Connecticut,” reports speaker Rod Khattabi of Grace Farms’ Justice Initiative; Khattabi is a former Homeland Security special agent who trains police all over the world to disrupt trafficking. “They were horrified.”
For many attendees, that night was when their education began; Boolbol hopes that they, like her, will now be unable to turn away from the scourge that is human trafficking.
Learn more about the Partnership to End Human Trafficking at peht.org.