(WTNH) — It’s called an underground crime. Children are swept into the world of trafficking, sometimes right under the nose of family or friends, and often by the hands of people they trust the most.
“We do have a lot of youth who they’re being trafficked by a romantic partner, by a neighbor, by someone else in their community, but they’re still going to school, sometimes regularly, sometimes irregularly. They’re still participating in things, many of them are still sleeping at home,” said Erin Williamson, Vice President of Global Programs & Strategy at Love146.
An estimated 40 million people fall victim to trafficking and exploitation worldwide, with 25 percent of them being children. While that number is dramatically reduced here, it’s happening in Connecticut.
“We have worked with youth in every single county, and if you think it’s not happening in your neighborhood, it is,” Williamson said.
New Haven-based Love146 is a global organization, dedicated to ending child trafficking. They say kids can be lured in with food, clothes, money, attention, friendship, and even love.
“First, everything is great, then I just need you to do this one thing. If you love me, you would do it,” Williamson said.
They found that where there are more people, more children are likely being exploited.
“We are between New York and Massachusetts. We are the main hub or the corridor,” said Detective Leonardo Soto, New Haven Police Department.
In New Haven, police are on high alert.
“If you are trying to get rooms in either New York or Mass., you’re going to spend a ton more. If you stop here, motels cost less,” Soto said.
Soto is part of the Special Victims’ Unit at the New Haven Police Department. He says just this year, a woman was arrested for trafficking six victims between the ages of 13 and 17. She was their aunt.
“They were all young girls from New Haven, very young. They all came from broken homes, no dads, just nowhere to go. The aunt saw that, and she manipulated that,” Soto said.
Websites and even social media are also used to illegally advertise, schedule, and purchase sexual encounters with minors.
“I spent about eight years solid online as a 13-year-old girl, just trying to get out there, protect our youth, and seeing what was happening,” said Scott Driscoll, President of Internet Safety Concepts.
Making the undercover work Driscoll has done so critical.
“We don’t let our children drive a car until they reach the age. They go to driving school and we sit down next to them with our life in our own hands to make sure that they’re safe, yet we will hand them a device where they can communicate with billions of strangers and not do anything about it,” Driscoll said.
As the trafficking system has become more elaborate, the avenues for catching these criminals have advanced as well. In fact, there are also resources in place to raise awareness and to help victims that are still suffering.
“A huge piece of the healing journey is actually being able to trust yourself again to enter into a relationship and to choose the people who are going to be safe in your life, and who are going to actually stick by you and treat you like a person. Not a product,” said Mary Speta, Executive Director of Amirah.
The organizations are there every step of the way.
“I don’t know who you are, or what you’ve been through, but you’re worth it. It’s worth it,” Speta said.