When Theresa Leonard-Rozyn was being trafficked by her drug-addicted mother, nobody was looking for her. She wasn’t a runaway. She was a nine-year-old who needed help.
Now at 45, she wants to make sure that someone is looking out for the children being trafficked for sex on the Internet. And she wants to go after the websites that make it so easy to buy children and abuse them.
Leonard-Rozyn joined Sen. Richard Blumenthal at the headquarters of the anti-trafficking group Love146 on Chapel Street Monday to support the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act. Blumenthal is a co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate and he said it has bipartisan support to pass but it needs Senate leaders to schedule a vote.
A companion bill has made it out of the U.S. House of Representatives with overwhelming bipartisan support and a 388 to 25 vote, he said. But voting on the Senate bill has stalled while lawmakers wrangle over a bill that threatens consumer protections.
Leonard-Rozyn, who is the founder of the Underground, an organization that provides referral services to those who have been the victim of sex trafficking, said advertisements on classified websites like Backpage.com are often written in coded language that attempts to obscure that someone is trafficking a person for sex.
“They use certain smiley faces ... emojis ... to communicate with a buyer,” she said. “It seems legal because it’s on Backpage ... but these are America’s children being sold to the highest bidder.”
Erin Williamson, survivor care program director for Love146, said advocates for sex trafficking victims want the ability to hold accountable sites they say are profiting from “the rape of our children.” She said she’s been doing advocacy work for 20 years and the Internet has changed the sex trafficking game. Love146 has a waitlist for long-term services victims because the numbers of people being exploited have increased significantly.
“We can’t keep up with the number of people who need services,” she said.
Blumenthal called sex trafficking a “scourge” that should have the direct attention of the entire nation.
“It’s really modern day slavery,” he said. “We need to break the shackles.”
And Blumenthal said to do that the government must hold sites that “knowingly” allow the advertisement that facilitates sex trafficking accountable. He said the bill would amend the Communications Decency Act, which he said currently protects sites like Backpage from any liability associated with content posted by others.
Backpage.com higher-ups have for years denied accusations that the site facilitates such crimes.
They argue that the site is an anti-trafficking tool that helps federal investigators track and catch traffickers and other criminals. (Read more about that argument here.)
The site also requires that people agree to report “any illegal services or activities” including reporting “suspected exploitation of minors and/or human trafficking to the appropriate authorities.”
Leonard-Rozyn, who also was Blumenthal’s guest at the most recent State of the Union address, said it’s time for the Senate to step up and do the right thing on this bill. She said every day that the bill is delayed in its passage she wonders how many children have been sold for sex.
“Every day that they don’t bring this bill, they’re saying it’s OK,” she said.