For nearly five years, Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families has been working on a problem that in some respects has surprised them. It was 2008 when they were called in on a case of international child sex trafficking. Since then, they’ve developed a program to deal with sex trafficking in the state. What they’ve learned is it’s more of a domestic problem than they first thought.
"As the years have evolved we've realized that most all of our victims have been DCF involved or American children,” said DCF’s William Rivera.
DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has created a team that works to identify and treat child victims. So far they’ve discovered nearly 120 cases of sex trafficking in CT. The victims range in age from 13-18. DCF expects the number of victims they don’t know of is much higher.
"Historically people have not wanted to shine the light on it because it's unsavory, it's ugly, it's the seamy side of life,” said DCF Commissioner Joette Katz.
In February, former New Haven firefighter Frank Meyer was charged with sex trafficking after a 25-year-old Vermont man came forward. The alleged victim told investigators was sexually involved with Meyer and his friend, Brett Bartolotta of VT, since the age of 12. The victim says he was given gifts and cash, and at times other minors were involved. Shortly after he was charged, Meyer took his own life. Bartolotta is awaiting trial.
While the allegations in the Vermont case involve a boy, DCF says the majority of cases they deal with involve girls. Among the children they treat, the common thread in nearly all of the victims is a history of sexual abuse, making them targets for predators.
"They'll take them out to dinner, they'll take them to movies, they'll get their hair done, they'll get their nails done, they'll say they love them," said Tammy Sneed, Director of Girls’ Services with DCF. "Once our young people are drawn into that world, it's really difficult to get them out."
DCF has undertaken a massive training operation with police, prosecutors, schools, hospitals and others groups. They're teaching individuals who may come into contact with potential victims what to look for. What DCF has found is the people they train often recognize the signs in hindsight with prior children they’ve dealt with.
"I haven't done a training in which a person at the end hasn't come up to me and said 'I really feel like I missed some of the signs with this young person," said Sneed.