Barnaba Institute seeks to spread awareness in SE CT about sex trade and teens
Posted by Suzanne Thompson on May 23 2008, 10:44 AM
It’s hardly the stuff of polite conversation around the Lymes, but families and children in all of southeastern Connecticut towns are not immune to the seamy business of prostitution and sex for pay, according to Frank Barnaba, founder of the Barnaba Institute (BI) of Clinton.
In fact, pimps and perpetrators particularly prey on the stiff upper lips of parents and the seeming naiveté of young people from this region, according to Barnaba, who has worked in the field, both undercover and in advocacy, for almost 35 years. In the last three years he has tried to help several young women get away from exploitative situations in New London County that involved prostitution, pimps, and drugs: three cases in Old Lyme, one in Niantic, and two in Norwich and New London. Families or friends of someone in need of help will contact him; not every case is successful.
Barnaba started the Paul & Lisa Program, Inc., in 1980. The nonprofit organization was named after Lisa, a young woman Barnaba happened to meet at a diner in Woodbridge when he got stuck in a snow storm. The young honors student from a religious and caring family had gotten involved with a businessman who “sold” her to the mob in New Haven. After much counseling and support by Barnaba, she made plans to escape prostitution and drugs. But she died of a suspiciously large overdose of cocaine. The “Paul” came from St. Paul’s Church in Westbrook, which gave money to start the organization.
Since 1980, Barnaba personally has rescued about 135 people from human trafficking and sexual exploitation, most of them in the New York metro area. Some have gone on to be nurses, school teachers, and there are two psychologists—one is a famous doctor in New York City. Barnaba has gone undercover with federal agents on some cases and has trained FBI agents on commercial sexual exploitation. In 1988, he was recipient of the National Victim of Crime Award by President Ronald Reagan for his outstanding contributions in assisting victims of crime.
“People think of trafficking in other countries—Africa and Indonesia—but domestic trafficking is truly growing,” he said. “Nobody has the numbers, really.”
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates 200,000 to 300,000 U.S. citizens, mainly children and young women, are at high risk of being trafficked throughout the country for sexual purposes. Barnaba considers this a low estimate.
“It’s not organized crime anymore,” he said. “Gangs are getting involved big-time, and this is changing the whole scope.”
Nationally, the average age of a child roped into trafficking and prostitution is 13, according to BI. Barnaba said he recently dealt with 12-year-olds working the streets in Waterbury. It’s not unusual for the pimps now to be 17 to 25 years old.Along the shoreline, he said, the perpetrators often are drug dealers.
Lest anyone think they are preying only on inner city youth and the suburbs are safe, he recounts what a New London drug dealer and pimp told him last year: “It’s a piece of cake with these upper-class wealthy kids; parents don’t talk about this with them.”
Barnaba said parents and teachers need to be talking with children starting around age 11 about the fact that there are people in the local community who are here for one reason: to exploit children.
Since retiring from Paul & Lisa about two years ago, Barnaba decided to form the institute in his name, to carry out a two-pronged mission: One is a preventative approach to raise awareness of the problem among community leaders, schools, and residents.Lisa Bragaw of Niantic, one of BI’s directors and a mother of three children under age 11, agrees that knowledge is power, for both adults and children.
“While it’s a difficult topic, it’s something that we need to know as parents to help protect our children,” Bragaw said. “We raise our children to be polite and to say hello to people who say hello to them. On the other hand, I’m trying to tell them to watch themselves and to look out for predators, without scaring them. It’s a really fine line.”
The PTA at Niantic Center School sponsored a BI presentation for parents in East Lyme last spring. Bragaw is in discussions with East Lyme High to put on a similar presentation.
“This was all new to me,” Bragaw said of hearing BI’s presentation the first time. “The predators befriend the kids, get them to trust them, buy them gifts, and they get the kids to start telling little white lies, sneaking out on their parents a bit. They are very patient on how they will get these kids involved.”
“Kids are so much smarter today,” Barnaba said. “They know what’s going on, more than their parents. They can find anything they want on the Internet. They think it’s a lark.”
“‘Stranger-danger’ isn’t necessarily the way to go because unfortunately kids who are abused are often abused by people they know,” Bragaw said. “You have to learn what to look for in a predator.”
BI also can conduct presentations for community and citizen groups and training for law enforcement. It recently received a three-year, $70,000 grant from the Ittleson Foundation of New York City to develop an educational program, including a survivor transitional guide, for outreach staff at other organizations that help victims. The materials will first be used by Covenant House locations worldwide.
The grant has made it possible for BI to hire Sandra Taylor of Niantic, who started out as a BI volunteer, to work part time as a grants researcher and use her graphics and editorial skills on developing the pilot program materials. She also is involved in fund-raising and promoting BI’s objectives.
Taylor has enlisted two Old Lyme Middle School eighth-graders to help with local fund-raising projects. Alyssa Bernblum, 14, daughter of Bennett Bernblum and Barbara Fallon, and Kelsey Riggs, 14, daughter of Jeff and Julie Riggs, helped with a bake sale at Stop & Shop in East Lyme and a fund-raiser at Plaza Ford in Niantic earlier this year. Tracy McHugh of Niantic is a new member to the BI board. She will be contributing her experience in fund-raising, magazine publication, and marketing.
BI’s other targeted effort is outreach to victims who want to get off of the street. This is a more undercover operation for Jen Sheehan, BI outreach director, and trained volunteers. They get to know the kids, give them a BI phone number to call, and make arrangements to get them out of their environment to a safe location. Sometimes this involves Covenant House in New York or other support organizations. For now, the focus is on Waterbury, a town with extreme trafficking problems, according to Barnaba.
Before BI starts outreach in a community, it maps out the centers of trafficking activity. BI hasn’t mapped out New London County yet, according to Alexis Taylor Litos, BI executive director, but that doesn’t mean trafficking isn’t going on here.
“Many law enforcement agencies still treat prostitution as a crime and don’t look at the trafficking that’s beneath the surface,” she said. “We haven’t approached the police here yet.”
Barnaba considers a case from Old Lyme, about eight years ago, to be one of his worst. A former high school student got recruited by a man in New London and went off to New York to dance in peep shows. Despite attempts by Barnaba and her family to get her out, she became an adult film actress. Barnaba noted the Hollywood portrayal of young girls turned hooker only to meet a nice, handsome client is hardly what happens.
Perpetrators are looking for naiveté over good looks in their victims, he said. They look for children who are loners, a bit despondent. In southeastern Connecticut, he said, children are as likely to be approached on the beach or at a fast-food restaurant as at a shopping mall.
“These guys brag that all they need is two hours, all they need to do is get the kids into a car,” Sheehan said. It often starts with lavished praise or adoration. Sometimes it might start with requests to take photos of the child, or for them to do something special for the perpetrator.
Youth of a similar age often are used as recruiters, she said, and the targeted child doesn’t meet the person behind it all until later.At some point, sexual and physical abuse and violence enter the picture.
“They use the fact that these are good kids. Kids want to please an adult, that’s natural,” she said. “It just depends on what the adult is demanding of them.”
BI hasn’t studied the educational level or aptitudes of kids it rescues, she said, but at ages 12 and 13, they aren’t even old enough to be stereotypical teen drop-outs.
“For the most part, they seem to be very well-mannered, well-spoken kids,” Sheehan said. “One thing a lot of the girls seem to have in common is some sort of abuse.”
She also cautions that there isn’t one socioeconomic class that is preyed upon.
“I think that pimps can range from wealthy to poor,” she said. “The range is just amazing.”
One barrier Sheehan has seen among the trafficked victims is that they feel ashamed of having been roped into prostitution, not really understanding what was going on at the time.
“A lot of the girls feel so ashamed to talk to their families because they really don’t realize that someone else has committed a crime against them,” she said. “They think they should have known better.”
Sheehan currently has three clients from Deep River, one an adult who was purchased by someone from out of state. One girl claims to be 14, she said, but is likely to be a malnourished 12- or 13-year-old.
“I know it sounds so clichéd, but talk to your children, listen to them,” Sheehan said. “Know where your kids are, who they are with. If they suddenly develop this cool friend who is a year or two older than they are, know who that person is. Know who their family is before you allow your child to go and visit them.
“If they go to the mall and meet some older kid, they need to know that they can’t leave with them,” she said.
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