By Adam Benson
NORWICH — From Norwich Free Academy classrooms to the state capitol and federal courtrooms, local educators and officials said Thursday Connecticut is doing everything it can to raise awareness and combat human trafficking within its borders.
“One of the steps in the right direction is making sure future generations know this is very much a present-day issue, and we would be naïve to think we are somehow immune to the issue,” NFA history teacher Kelly Coull said during a two-hour conference on the topic at the school’s Sidney Frank Center for the Arts. “One thing that is always a goal is to bridge the gap between what happened in the past and what is very much a truth today, and unfortunately that’s very easy to do with human trafficking.”
The forum, co-sponsored by the city’s human services department and the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut, brought together state lawmakers, activists and agency leaders to discuss the prevalence of human trafficking locally.
William Rivera, a former Boston police officer and director of the state Department of Children and Family Services’ multicultural affairs division, said officials handled 72 reports last year for suspected trafficking cases — including 27 from Eastern Connecticut, which accounts for 13 percent of total.
Through last week, Rivera said, his agency has had 19 reports.
“The referrals are growing pretty high,” he said. “And it’s not just one group. All have their vulnerabilities.”
According to data Rivera presented Thursday, 92 percent of the cases investigated involved girls, and 66 percent were either black or Hispanic.
And according to the Connecticut Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, 100 human trafficking victims were identified by state agencies between 2008 and 2011. All were female, and 82 were between the ages of 13 to 18.
“Almost every one of the 100 cases were jointly investigated with the FBI, with convictions at the federal level,” Rivera said.
That includes the May 9, 2013, arrest of 36-year-old Taye Elleby, who was sentenced in February to 10 ½ to 32 years in New York state prison for running a prostitution and trafficking ring that included a 17-year-old girl from Norwich who reportedly connected with Elleby through an ad on backpage.com, authorities said.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said a measure signed into law last June by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has helped provide law enforcement personnel and prosecutors with more resources to go after traffickers, but wants to see further action taken.
Among other provisions, House Bill 5666 increases the penalty from a class A misdemeanor to a class C felony for people who knowingly patronize prostitutes younger than 18 and allows anybody convicted of prostitution a chance to clear their record if there is proof that person was a victim of trafficking.