NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — The Salvation Army hosted a community event Thursday to raise awareness about combatting human trafficking in Connecticut.

The statistics are shocking. In 2021, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) said human trafficking occurred in every county across the state. The victims’ ages ranged from 2 to 18.

Of the 241 victims identified in Connecticut, 86% were female, but the department believes many more male victims have not been identified yet. Nearly two-thirds of the children were living at home with a parent or guardian while they were being trafficked. Online trafficking is one of their greatest concerns, as more kids have been using the internet because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because our kids are posting a lot of information out there,” Licensed Professional Counselor Melissa Garden with the DCF said. “I’m lonely. I’m angry at my parents. I hate school, and traffickers use that as an opportunity to connect with kids.”

Wendy, an undercover Special Agent with the FBI Human Trafficking & Crimes Against Children Unit from the New Haven Division, shared what she has seen in Connecticut. She says human trafficking is not like what you see on TV.

“In Law and Order, you go down and they’re all chained to the wall in the basement of the house. That’s great evidence for law enforcement case but that’s not what we see,” she said. “If you stay in hotels on any type of regular basis, you have probably walked right past a trafficking victim and you have absolutely no idea.”

She says most victims don’t believe they are being used. But there was one way she knew.

“I always say that it’s in their eyes. As they are mf-ing you and they’re telling you to get out of their face, their eyes are pleading with you to please just care about them.”

Many of the traffickers Wendy has spoken to are from out of state, coming to Connecticut from Boston and New York City. They tell her the hotels are cheaper than the bigger cities.

“Connecticut is viewed as having old white man money, that’s what these guys are telling us. They believe that there are a lot of individuals that are willing to pay to have sex in Connecticut,” she said.

The FBI doesn’t always prosecute cases right away if it puts the victim in extreme danger. Wendy says the victim needs to be whole, ready for help and ready for the court process following an arrest of a trafficker.

“I need them to know that I care about them as a person more than I care about prosecuting the cases,” said Wendy.

The Salvation Army is providing support to survivors of sex and/or labor trafficking through the Bloom Initiative from their Hartford, New London and Willimantic locations. The program provides holistic, long-term, individualized support.

The Department of Children and Families says signs of trafficking include changes in behavior, appearance and social interaction. Tattoos or branding on the neck or lower back is also a sign.

If you believe someone is being trafficked, call the National Trafficking Resource Center at (888) 373-7888 or text HELP to 233733 (BEFREE).