Connecticut's Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families testified at a Senate hearing on Tuesday in response to a bill that would require states to do more to help children who've been exploited by sex traffickers.
DCF Commissioner Joette Katz spoke about the state's program to assist trafficking victims before the U.S Senate Finance Committee which has jurisdiction over child welfare programs. Katz says minors who are trafficked are victims, not criminals. "We want to embrace them and not prosecute them. Just like with domestic and sexual assault victims it is key to how you respond to these young ladies, generally young ladies, because in this instance you get one shot." Since 2008 when the state focused resources on combatting trafficking, 130 children have been identified as victims in Connecticut. Joining Katz on the panel was Asia Graves a survivor advocate from the group FAIR girls, based in Washington D.C. She says states can help victims by teaching students about the dangers of sex trafficking and ways to get help. Graves referenced a New Haven based group that's using specific curriculum to reach students "We use our curriculum in Connecticut as well with an organization called Love 146. They're teaching it in Connecticut schools and using the systems in place already in Connecticut. If every city had something to identify victims in the schools then that would be a key starting place because girls and boys are more likely to say this is happening to me. It would actually save more children because they'll know they're victims." This month, the Connecticut state legislature approved a bill to strengthen criminal penalties for those who purchase and traffick minors as well as adopting a framework for investigation and prosecution of cases. Meanwhile a proposed federal bill would require states to create plans and services like those in Connecticut that protect child victims, and improve response and prevention programs. Nationwide, 200,000 American children are potentially trafficked into the sex trade each year.