Jenn was 18 and addicted to drugs when a relative ensnared her in the squalid world of sex trafficking.
“As a victim of this crime, the intimidation, torture, rape and outright slavery went on for several months,” Jenn told members of the legislature’s judiciary committee Monday. “It has left permanent scars on my life and my family. It is a nightmare I relive every day.”
Jenn, whose last name was not disclosed to shield her privacy, is now the married mother of two children and has been sober for a decade. She returned to Connecticut on Monday to testify in support of a package of legislative proposals that seeks to crack down on the demand for prostitution by increasing the penalties for buying sex.
House Bill 7309 would create a new felony charge of commercial sex abuse of a minor and increases the punishment for sex trafficking. It also seeks to offer greater assistance to victims by directing state officials to develop a plan to provide mental health counseling, substance abuse and support programs.
“This provision is a huge step in directing public attention and law enforcement efforts to the demand side of sex trafficking and makes a bold statement that Connecticut will not tolerate the buying of children and exploitation of women for sex,” said Jillian Gilchrest, who leads the Trafficking in Persons Council, which developed the legislation.
The measure would increase the penalty for the crime of trafficking in persons to a Class A felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
“This bill….[is] about addressing the demand side of this problem which occurs under our noses in illegitimate massage parlors, nails salons and casinos and some hotels and motels,” said Christine Palm, communication and women’s policy analyst for the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children and Seniors. “Connecticut has wonderful laws on the books, this would strengthen them.”
Between 2008 and 2016, 634 children were referred to the state Department of Children and Families as possible victims of sex trafficking. And the number is growing: DCF received 133 unique referrals of suspected child sex trafficking victims in 2015; by 2016, the number increased to 202, according to the department.
But the problem is often hidden from public view, said Rep. William Petit, a Republican from Plainville who is part of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers backing the bill. He compared sex trafficking to the opioid crisis. “Five years ago people said this doesn’t happen in our nice little town,” he said. “Now we know it happens everywhere.”
Rep. William Tong, a Stamford Democrat and co-chairman of the judiciary committee, said stronger laws against sex trafficking could become a powerful deterrent. “Criminal law is a way to establish societal norms,” he said.
The bill contains a number other provisions: It would require motel and hotel operators obtain a form of identification before renting a room and it bars hourly rentals. Sen. Cathy Osten said those two provisions will have a “huge impact on curbing human trafficking” in Connecticut.
It also requires businesses such as farms, massage parlors, airports, emergency rooms and other public places to post signs about human trafficking so victims know where to go to get help.
Jenn, the survivor of sex trafficking, applauded the bill’s provisions that would help victims rebuild their lives. She said she was largely abandoned after providing crucial testimony against her pimp. “After all I had been through – enslaved by a pimp, drug addiction, sexual assault and the terror of going through a trial – I was left alone,” she said.