About thirty miles outside of New Haven, U.S. Routes 5 and 15 continue through the maze of Connecticut’s interstates on the Berlin Turnpike. This twelve-mile stretch of pavement connects the towns of Meriden, Berlin, Newington, and Wethersfield and is one of the state’s major shopping hubs, seeing as it is populated with outlet malls and department stores just an exit away. But there is a different, much darker kind of transaction taking place in the motels that line the highways: sex trafficking.

In 2011, author Raymond Bechard published an account of a federal trial in Hartford in which a local pimp was convicted on 21 charges of sex trafficking minors, some as young as 14, and using interstate facilities to promote prostitution. The man in question, Dennis Paris, was sentenced to 30 years in prison and was one of ten defendants involved in the Connecticut-based sex trafficking ring that perpetrated these crimes.

“[Paris] preyed on the vulnerabilities of girls and young women, and hopefully the strict sentence imposed today will deter others from participating in the sex trafficking [business] and manipulating women and minors into committing sexual acts under the threat of violence,” said then-Acting U.S. Attorney Nora R. Dannehy in a DOJ press release.

This case is by no means an isolated incident. According to Connecticut officials, the state’s highways are rife with human trafficking. In 2016, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received as many as 193 calls reporting 54 cases of trafficking, with 46 of the calls being made by victims themselves. Since 2007, the NHTH has received 812 calls in total, with 230 cases being reported. Most of the commercial sex offered to customers takes place in brothels disguised as massage parlors and beauty salons or in motels.

And these numbers are on the rise. Pimps are using social media and the Internet more frequently to lure in unsuspecting women. One victim recounted taking a bus down from New York to Connecticut in response to an ad posted for a beautician. being forced into modern-day slavery. In another case, a teenage girl was held in a Hartford apartment against her will and sexually assaulted.

Because of these harrowing figures, Connecticut U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly created the Connecticut Human Trafficking Task Force in 2015 with the intent to “combat commercial sexual and labor exploitation in the state.” The group is made up of officials from “multiple service providers, federal agencies, state police, and 14 local police departments.”

“Over the last several years it has become increasingly clear that human trafficking, and especially the sex trafficking of minors, this cruel victimization of defenseless young girls and sometimes boys, is a form of modern-day slavery,” said Daly at the press conference announcing the creation of the task force. “And despite the best efforts of law enforcement, this criminal activity grows apace with the proliferation of the Internet marketplace, where sex with children is bought and sold.”

While the majority of trafficking victims are adults, Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) is a very real problem in Connecticut. Between 2006 and 2016, there were 432 child victims of human trafficking in the state. Of these cases, only 28 cases were prosecuted. Last year, The Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and three legislative committees held a hearing to find out why. According to Chief State Attorney Kevin Kane, one of the biggest obstacles is a lack of cooperation on the part of victims.

“It’s a special class of victims who do not want to cooperate with police, and who don’t want to testify or give information against the pimps,” he testified.

Another issue is the lack of enforcement mechanisms available to officials. For example, Connecticut has no grand jury system, which deprives the courts of the right to issue subpoenas to gather the proper evidence necessary to convict. Still, there is valid concern about the lack of urgency to confront the problem with full force. At the aforementioned hearing, Joette Katz, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, told legislators that her department identified 133 child victims of human trafficking in 2015. Even worse, 98 percent of those children had had prior interaction with the department before they were trafficked.

“That’s shameful, and that’s something that we take, not just seriously, but personally,” said Katz.

“It must be really awful to be a child sex slave and know that even if society knows you are missing, no one is looking for you,” wrote writer and policy analyst Anne Stevenson in a Huffington Post piece published last year. “That if you are found, you will probably be blamed for your own disappearance and trafficking.”

It’s more important than ever to know how to recognize potential sex trafficking victims and how to get them the proper help and resources they need to get out. The Connecticut Department of Health has published a guide to identifying and helping victims, including how to spot signs of physical abuse and who to call after identifying a potential victim. If you are a victim or have identified a victim of trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline immediately: 1-888-373-7888.

And the next time you drive on the Pike, take a look around. It could save a life.

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