The New Haven office of Love146 is filled with warmth and comfort. Messages of encouragement and support cover the walls, with lots of cozy areas for people to relax. Love146 is an international organization dedicated to the eradication of child trafficking and exploitation, through education, advocacy, and survivor care.
Just a few minutes away, on Yale’s campus, one can observe the breadth of social activism opportunities on every bulletin board—from fossil fuel divestment to prisoner’s rights to homelessness. Yet no campus organization is dedicated to anti-trafficking work. Love146 and like minded groups are doing incredible work, but the lack of awareness on this issue makes it difficult for substantive policy change to occur.
Before examining the state of human trafficking in CT, it is helpful to explore the current state of trafficking in the United States. In 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline identified over 23,000 US-based survivors of human trafficking. While this statistic helps demonstrate the prevalence of trafficking in the United States, experts estimate that the “total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands when estimates of both adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated.” Because trafficking is severely underreported, it is difficult to accurately understand how many people are impacted. However, every year the number of reported trafficking cases increases.
While discourse on international trafficking often focuses on kidnapping, extreme poverty, and overt coercion, domestic victims of trafficking are typically subjected to more subtle forms of control. As shown on the above Hotline chart, some of the most common recruitment tactics involve intimate partners, isolation, job offers, and familial recruitment. These methods are less visible to both communities and victims themselves–making it difficult to identify and eliminate instances of trafficking.
Amidst the rising national awareness of human trafficking, the federal government has implemented several policies intending to both support survivors and prevent trafficking. The year 2000 marked the passage of the first federal anti-trafficking legislation, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The TVPA outlined increasing resources/training for survivor protections, recognized the multitude of methods for coercing victims, and helped noncitizen victims with immigration concerns.
Given the high occurrence of trafficking nationally, it is no surprise that human trafficking occurs in Connecticut. According to Sasha Thomas ‘22, a Yale student who interned with Love 146, “In every county in Connecticut, there have been reports of trafficking.” The majority of these reports involve sex trafficking, but labor trafficking is also reported. In the past two years alone, the Department of Justice has convicted five different CT residents for sex trafficking. These cases involve mostly minor victims who were forced to engage in commercial sex acts in hotels in Hartford, Danbury, Meriden, Hamden, Milford, and other CT towns.
Despite the prevalence of trafficking in Connecticut, services for survivors are robust. As Erin Williamson, US Programs Director for Love146 explained to the Politic, “the challenge is that CT has a lot of good people doing good work for survivors, yet they are not supported by law.” According to the above report card by SharedHope International, CT has some serious policy flaws. Notably, Connecticut does not criminalize buyer conduct. Perhaps this loophole is racially motivated—according to Williamson, buyers of trafficked victims’ services are predominantly white males.
The buyer demographic presents one important reason for lack of conversation—victims of color and white perpetrators breed social apathy. As Williamson told the Politic, “If these were all white kids being victimized by men of color, there would be outrage.” Without public demands for change, CT legislators are failing to improve what should be a nonpartisan issue.
Shifting from the role of the state to other social factors, social media emerges as a major proponent of trafficking. According to Williamson, Love146 deals with many victims who have been groomed and recruited into trafficking on social media platforms. Separate from discussions of trafficking, there have been many studies on the connections between loneliness and social media activity. A recent 2019 study found that “teens whose face time with friends is mostly on their phones are the loneliest of all, but even those who mix real-world socializing with social media still are increasingly isolated.” As America’s youth reach out for genuine connections on social media, they often fail to find support. As Erin Williamson told the Politic, “I can’t tell you how many youth can’t name three people to go to in the case of an emergency.” While there are populations overrepresented in trafficking—people of color, foster kids, homeless youth, etc.—trafficking can impact any vulnerable youth, especially through social media.
One specific campaign Love146 has undertaken to remedy the targeting of children online is changing privacy settings on Facebook for users under the age of 18. Their Change.org petition details the ease with which traffickers manipulate children’s lack of stringent privacy restrictions. If the American public mobilized on this small facet of action, it would greatly improve the online protections for children online.
Recognizing the lack of awareness and action on this issue, Yale students should capitalize on their privilege and political power to affect change for the local victims of human trafficking. Besides understanding the scope of the issue and spreading awareness, Yale needs to examine why its students have been silent on this topic. Some might suggest that the relative invisibility of trafficking makes it difficult for students to understand the importance of advocacy. If students don’t personally know victims, some might find it more challenging to connect to survivors of trafficking. Regardless of its underlying reason, the silence of Yale’s campus is deafening. For those carrying the banners of public service and justice, the inability or unwillingness to engage with exploitation is hypocritical and dangerous. The horrors of sexual abuse and exploitation might feel distant for many students, but inaction will only prolong the traumas endured by survivors.