Checked Out

When Neil Hughes works the front reception desk at the Mayflower Motel in Milford, Connecticut, he always stays alert. Nestled between car service stations in a retail area just off Interstate 95, the motel where he has been employed for the past eight years doesn’t look particularly vulnerable to crime: a table in the front office is scattered with cheap romance novels that visitors are invited to borrow; one wall is decorated with a playful plaque that reads, “I work 40 hours a week to be this poor”; guests stream in and out of the office to check in, chat with one another, and buy snacks. But Hughes, who lives on the premises, doesn’t let the familiarity of the space blind him to the threat currently afflicting Connecticut hotels and motels: human trafficking.

Behind the counter where Hughes works, the Mayflower Motel’s management team has hung several informational posters about how to identify and respond to signs of trafficking. Some of the clues are conspicuous, such as a woman with visible bruises, or a guest aggressively refusing to let his companion speak. But others, Hughes noted, are less obvious: a young girl checking in with a much older man, or even a feeling in his gut.

“If something doesn’t look right, it usually isn’t,” he said, stuffing his hands in his pocket with a sense of proud authority. Hughes hasn’t observed any signs of trafficking at the Mayflower recently, but in the event that he ever does, he knows to call the authorities.

Hughes’s vigilance and preparedness reflect a recent statewide push to raise awareness about human trafficking in the lodging sector—a movement that the Connecticut state legislature most recently advanced with Public Act No. 16-71. The bill, which became law in 2016, was enacted in response to the more than 650 underage victims of trafficking referred to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families since 2008. Before Public Act No. 16-71 was instituted, Connecticut prosecutors had not succeeded in convicting a single perpetrator since trafficking was made a felony in 2006. Its measures include a new requirement that hotels and motels keep records of all guests and receipts for at least six months following each transaction, as well as an unfunded mandate that all lodging employees receive human trafficking awareness training before October 1, 2017.

Today, the bill’s success remains largely uncertain. On the one hand, the preparedness of employees like Neil Hughes suggests that it has worked. The Human Trafficking Prevention Project, an initiative run by Quinnipiac Law School students, has trained an estimated 350 hotel and motel employees across the state. Yet disagreements concerning the legislation’s technical stipulations persist, a majority of lodging employees remain untrained, and anti-trafficking advocates are tasked with enforcing a bill that has no financial carrot or legal stick. Now, several months after the supposed October 1 deadline for training completion, critics and proponents of the bill are grappling with the same question: if Public Act No. 16-71 isn’t self-enforcing, how can service-providers and prosecutors make it effective?

“In general, people still believe trafficking happens someplace else. It’s something in the movies,” said Tammy Sneed, Director of Adolescent Services at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. This “not in my state” attitude, she believes, is why so many residents are surprised to learn that hundreds of local minors are trafficked in Connecticut each year. Sneed is also the director of the Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team (HART), a statewide collaboration between individuals from diverse professional backgrounds—law enforcement, mental health providers, anti-trafficking advocates, and more. The HART team’s primary purpose is to identify and provide support services to survivors of trafficking and youth at risk of exploitation.

There are seventeen HART liaisons throughout the state, each responsible for covering a different geographic region and connecting local youth with necessary services. In 2014, HART received ninety-four unique referrals of minors who were either confirmed survivors of trafficking or suspected of being trafficked. The next year, the program received 133 referrals. In 2016, the most recent year for which HART has complete data, the program received 202 referrals.

(The Mayflower Motel, photo by Robbie Short)

Despite this concerning trend, Sneed said it’s often difficult for Connecticut residents to recognize the threat and impact of the trafficking industry because so much of its business is conducted in a nearly invisible arena: the web.

“Many of our kids are being recruited via the internet,” Sneed said. “So they’re often being groomed by the internet, and often… they’re being sold by the internet.” Victims are typically first targeted on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Grindr, where traffickers can cultivate close friendships with dozens of underage children simultaneously. Sneed noted that people tend to assume children in urban areas are at the highest risk of being trafficked, but HART has encountered several rural cases in which minors were trafficked despite living several miles from their closest neighbors.

Once traffickers gain the trust of these children, their industry of exploitation thrives on internet platforms like Backpage and Craigslist, websites that allow users to post free classified advertisements. Since 2010, Backpage has repeatedly come under fire for knowingly tolerating advertisements for the sexual exploitation of minors. In 2017, Backpage removed the “Adult Services” section of their website and cracked down on illicit language, but traffickers continue to advertise minors using misspellings and widely-understood code words. “New in town,” one anti-trafficking advocate explained, universally means that the advertised individual is underage. Other posts advertise “yung” girls in order to avoid the website’s filter on the word “young.”

Roughly half of the youth who are trafficked in Connecticut are already in the Department of Children and Families system at the time of their trafficking. In addition to hailing from a range of communities—urban, suburban, and rural—these vulnerable minors also cross racial demographics and family backgrounds. In 2016, 37 percent of HART’s clients were white, 28 percent were Black, and 24 percent were Latinx. A reported 58 percent of these minors resided with their parents at the time of their exploitation, but 16 percent were runaways and 11 percent were living in foster care. Gender is the one constant across most of Sneed’s clients: although HART cares for survivors of all genders, more than 91 percent of those served in 2016 were women.

In 2004, the Connecticut legislature created the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Council to examine the issue of trafficking in the state and make policy recommendations. Jillian Gilchrest, the Director of Health Professional Outreach at the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, chairs the council, whose twenty-five members come from both the public and private sectors.

The TIP Council’s research indicates that the trafficking industry (both sexual and labor) thrives in Connecticut because of the state’s close proximity to both New York City and Boston. Travel is cheap in Connecticut, and traffickers can constantly move along the Interstate 95 corridor to evade police detection. Food and lodging prices are typically lower than in the neighboring two major cities, and the demand for underage sex work is high. “What people aren’t understanding is that, no, no, there is an industry for selling youth,” Gilchrest said. In other words, working in Connecticut is a good business move for traffickers.

With the help of the TIP Council, the Connecticut Joint Committee on Judiciary introduced a new in-state anti-trafficking bill—which would later evolve into Public Act No. 16-71—in the spring of 2016. The proposed legislation included a number of provisions designed to regulate lodging properties’ role in human trafficking, including the six month policy governing record keeping and the mandate concerning employee awareness training. If lodging property owners failed to train their employees by October 1, 2017, they would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. Finally, hotels and motels would be banned from offering hourly rates for room rentals. But by the time Governor Dannel Malloy signed the new bill, Public Act No. 16-71, into law on June 1, 2016, congressmen had removed most of the legislation’s teeth.

The Connecticut lodging industry strongly opposed the stipulations outlined by the original bill. For a public hearing in March 2016, the president of the Connecticut Lodging Association, Victor Antico, wrote a letter urging lawmakers to consider an alternative “strong anti-human trafficking campaign that focuses on the nature of the issue not the regulation of an industry used in the process.” Two days later, the Judiciary Committee filed a substitute bill that omitted the ban on hourly rentals. The final legislation also failed to allocate funding for the trafficking awareness training requirement.

Legislators successfully defended Section 5, which required that lodging owners “ensure that each employee of such hotel, motel, inn or similar lodging receive training at the time of hire on the (1) recognition of potential victims of human trafficking, and (2) activities commonly associated with human trafficking.” By October 1, 2017, hotel and motels owners would theoretically need to certify that all employees received this training. However, without funds, the training initiative had no monetary support to incentivize hotel and motel staff to attend training sessions, or to compensate the instructors of these trainings.

By the time Governor Dannel Malloy signed the new bill, congressmen had removed most of the legislation’s teeth.

Lastly, Public Act No. 16-71 included no explicit methods for ensuring that lodging property owners would be held accountable to the bill. No government body was created or assigned to verify that all properties complied with the bill by the 2017 deadline. Throughout the legislative process, even the section designating failure to train employees as a class A misdemeanor was cut—meaning the final draft of the bill articulated no punishment for non-compliance.

In January 2017, Governor Malloy announced a public-private partnership between several bodies, including the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Connecticut Lodging Association, Marriott International, Quinnipiac Law School, and Grace Farms Foundation, a non-profit organization in New Canaan that contributed to the development of Public Act No. 16-71. With the help of anti-trafficking organizations Polaris Project and EPCAT, an international network that began as the campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, Marriott International developed a hotel employee training program on human trafficking in 2011. Quinnipiac Law School professor Sheila Hayre had mostly worked against labor trafficking before she got involved, but she stepped up to ensure that the Connecticut hotel and motel trainings were run effectively. Since then, Hayre and her team of over thirty Quinnipiac student volunteers have become the vehicle for these trainings.

Hayre estimates that since last January, they’ve organized ten sessions for hotel employees across the state of Connecticut. The Quinnipiac Human Trafficking Prevention Project workshops follow the Marriott curriculum, but the law students attempt to incorporate local examples when they can. (They typically have to explain, for example, why hotels and motels along Connecticut’s I-95 corridor are so prone to becoming sites of trafficking.) Additionally, the student organizers gather a panel of four or five experts—from law enforcement, the DCF, or anti-trafficking organizations—to answer hotel and motel employees’ questions at the end of each training session.

Since beginning their workshops, the Quinnipiac team has found it most effective to reach out to hotels and motels and deliver the trafficking awareness trainings on site. This approach has had success thus far, but Hayre is unsure if they will ever be able to train every lodging worker in the state with this approach. “Honestly, I don’t think we’ve even touched the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Sarah Washburn, an employee of the Connecticut Lodging Association and the association’s representative on the Connecticut TIP Council, echoed Hayre. “The general reaction has been challenging,” Washburn said. “The effort to get the training done by that date [October 1, 2017] has been hard for the industry.” When listing lodging properties’ training options in an interview, Washburn noted that many owners ask their employees to simply read and sign informational materials. Others, she said, can send a representative to one of the Quinnipiac workshops and then have that representative review the curriculum with other employees when they return.

Sheila Hayre, however, believes Public Act No. 16-71 forbids businesses from sending a representative who will subsequently train other staff members—and she expressed concern that this misunderstanding could actually have dangerous consequences. “It’s kind of horrifying that people are thinking, ‘We can send a rep and have that happen,’” Hayre said. “Trafficking is an elusive, very difficult-to-define topic, so we do not want folks who are not well-versed around trafficking issues to be dealing with this.”

In 2011, Shelia Fredrick, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, noticed something off about a girl in a window seat. The teenager had a bruise on her leg, was traveling with a much older man, and looked distressed. Fredrick knew something wasn’t right. She decided to intervene.

While the man was looking away, Fredrick caught the girl’s attention and mouthed to go to the bathroom, where she had left paper and a pen. When Fredrick later checked the bathroom, she found a note: “I need help.” The flight attendant immediately alerted the captain, and law enforcement officials arrived at the airport before the flight landed.

A BuzzFeed article about Fredrick’s intervention went viral in 2017, with thousands of people applauding the flight attendant for her quick thinking. But Sheila Hayre sometimes tells this story in trafficking awareness trainings as an example of exactly what not to do.

“We actually point out that that’s extremely dangerous—both to yourself, the people around you, the people you work with, but also to the victim,” Hayre said. “While you want to engage in vigilante justice, and you really want to help these folks, you can actually endanger them.” If the adult male trafficker had found Fredrick’s note, Hayre explained, he could have reacted violently. Furthermore, many victims of sexual trafficking, at the time of their exploitation, do not see themselves as victims and instead think of their traffickers as their boyfriends.

But while the Quinnipiac Law School trainings discourage workers from pursuing vigilante justice, they still discuss myriad examples of what hotel and motel workers should recognize as signs of trafficking. Then, they say, the most appropriate response is to let law enforcement handle it.

“While you want to engage in vigilante justice, and you really want to help these folks, you can actually endanger them.”

“What I tell folks to pay attention to is the dynamics between the adult and the minor, or sometimes what they think is a young adult. Does the situation seem to be very controlling? Is the adult doing all the talking? Are they attempting to secure a hotel room with cash [and] without identification?” said Tammy Sneed, who has served as an expert panelist.
The trainings also emphasize that trafficking awareness must be a collaborative effort between staff members in different roles. “When you’re cleaning staff, and you’re going into a hotel room, and you’re supposedly renting to a father and his two daughters, and you see sex toys or you see lubricant all over the place, that to me is a huge red flag,” Sneed said. “If you’re working at the front desk, and you have a room that keeps renting pornography, and again you’re supposed to have a family staying in a particular room, that would be a concern.” Many hotel and motel employees are afraid of reporting a client and being incorrect, but communicating with other employees about their observations often empowers them to call the authorities.

And reporting a potential instance of trafficking in Connecticut is as easy as that—just placing a phone call. This procedure ensures law enforcement is involved early on, and deters unqualified “vigilantes” from intervening counterproductively. Once lodging employees call the Connecticut trafficking tip line or local police, their responsibilities are supposedly fulfilled. “You need to err on the side of caution. Because mistakes will be made, but the trick is, they don’t have to be made by you. Your job is to report,” Hayre said.

Hotel and motel employees have been receptive at the trafficking awareness trainings thus far, and many have been shocked by how pertinent the issue of trafficking is in Connecticut. After hearing about sexual trafficking on Backpage, one property owner visited the website to see for himself. He was devastated to find an advertisement that featured a photo of an underage girl being trafficked in his own hotel. The trafficker had already vacated the room by this point, but the property owner’s sense of immunity was shattered. He swore to be more vigilant in the future.

Despite these moments of success, anti-trafficking advocates are still weighing how to bring about widespread enforcement of Public Act No. 16-71. Because the bill’s training initiative has no funding—and there have been no legal consequences for properties that did not finish training by October 1, 2017—many advocates are shifting toward moral arguments. If most hotels now boast about being eco-friendly, why can’t they create a culture in which hotels also want to be openly anti-trafficking? Sheila Hayre thinks this may be an effective strategy in Connecticut, but she is not hopeful about the replicability of the training mandate in other states. “In larger states…I just can’t imagine how they’d be able to do this without funding. Already it’s quite difficult to do it with all the traveling, and [Connecticut is] quite a small state.”

Tammy Sneed recognizes Public Act No. 16-71’s lack of teeth, but the HART team is dedicated to making the bill work, even if progress is slower than expected. “In a perfect world, we would have some money to make it easier to implement,” she said. “But we can’t just be dependent on that, because the reality is money’s not out there. And the criminals are out there making money.”

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