NEWINGTON - In a town that is home to one of the most infamous highways for sex trafficking, residents are stepping up to combat the problem.
The Newington Rotary Club’s newly formed Stop the Traffik committee brought the CEO of the world’s largest anti-slavery community to a forum March 5, to discuss an issue most people don’t know exists right in their backyards.
Freedom United founder Joseph Schmidt was a business executive when he discovered that human trafficking is the second largest illegal industry in the world, enslaving millions of adults and children. Those who attended the informational meeting at John Wallace Middle School caught a glimpse of the chair Schmidt was sitting in when he first learned about human trafficking in his North Carolina home, changing his life forever.
“When I heard the term I honestly thought of people in semi- tractor trailer trucks moving items across countries,” he remembered. “When I learned more, I thought, how can this be happening? My three daughters were sleeping upstairs. My heart broke. That night, my wife and I decided to get involved.”
Seven years later, his non-profit organization has taken 18 million actions to end modern slavery, guiding change in international policies through the advocacy of millions of supporters.
An estimated 40 million people are enslaved worldwide and one in four victims is a child. Sex trafficking represents about 30 percent of all cases. Other types of forced labor run rampant in places like diamond mines, textile factories and tobacco fields. However, more countries are taking steps to outlaw the practice and freeing victims, due to the unrelenting efforts of agencies like Freedom United and groups like the Newington Rotary Club.
“You are sitting on the front end of a revolution happening all over the world right now,” Schmidt said. “We’ve been partnering with Rotary International for years because we know Rotarians get stuff done.”
The club has harnessed local forces to work on addressing the problem locally, with a focus on child sex trafficking.
“We want to educate people like you, get help for the victims and end the demand,” club President and committee Chairman David Tedeschi said.
Tedeschi launched the town’s anti-trafficking committee late last year. Members include Newington Police Chief Stephen Clark, who encouraged those at the forum to report any suspicious activity they may encounter in this area.
“Go with your gut because it’s usually right,” Clark said. “Any info we can get is actionable.”
Clark said police are in and out of turnpike motels for drug activity and other crimes. He could not elaborate on recent evidence of trafficking, since it might compromise ongoing investigations.
“I think if you talk to most people they don’t understand the depth of the problem,” Clark pointed out.
Schmidt asked his audience to take out their cell phones, visit the Freedom United website and sign a petition calling upon Congress to support the Runaway and Homeless Youth Trafficking Prevention Act. This piece of legislation provides measures to protect homeless and runaway kids, who are at a higher risk of enslavement.
“I believe we’ve been given a solution to eradicate modern slavery and that solution is us,” Schmidt said.
Christine Keys, senior director of community programming at Klingberg Family Centers, was the evening’s other speaker. Keys shed light on how sex trafficking of children has touched this region.
“This is impacting our kids,” she explained. “Kids in our community, our schools and our neighborhoods. They are getting engaged by grooming and manipulation.”
In 2017 alone, 217 children were rescued from trafficking situations in Connecticut. Thirty-six were from the Department of Children and Families’ Region Six, or the towns of New Britain, Newington, Bristol, Berlin, Avon, Burlington, Canton, Farmington, Plainville, Plymouth, Rocky Hill, Simsbury, Southington, Wethersfield, Meriden and Wallingford.
Social worker Milly Stewart attended the forum to learn how she can help her clients, several of whom are trafficking survivors. But she also wanted to be there simply as a mother and a concerned citizen.
“As a resident of Newington and a mom of three boys I’m concerned about our community,” Stewart said. “I’m glad this is becoming more talk-able. Starting the conversation is the only way we can make our kids less vulnerable.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have a concern about a child call the Dept. of Children and Families Care line: 800-842-2288
To report a suspicion of human trafficking call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733)