Natchaug Takes on the Hidden World of Sex Trafficking

When Melissa Pelletier began working at Natchaug Hospital’s Journey House residential treatment program in 2007, an alarming trend was starting to emerge among the adolescent girls treated there.

“We were seeing girls coming in who were in ‘relationships’ with men that encouraged them to have sex for money,” said Pelletier, who serves as clinical director for the program.

“At that time, it was considered prostitution.”

Since then, the language and legal landscape have changed drastically. Minors under the age of 18 that have been coerced or forced into commercial sex acts are no longer labeled as prostitutes, but as victims of sex trafficking. And rather than being prosecuted, they receive the appropriate medical care and protection.

As sex trafficking has become better defined and understood, the number of cases and referrals has steadily increased.

In 2008, there were less than five referrals for domestic minor sex trafficking, according to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families; in 2015, referrals to DCF peaked at 133.

At Journey House, which treats girls from across Connecticut who are involved in the juvenile justice system, Pelletier estimates that between a quarter and half of the residents have been the victim of sex trafficking.

Sex traffickers often replicate a family system for vulnerable young people, offering clothes, money, shelter and food.

“We had one girl say that the female pimp bought her socks when she needed them,” Pelletier said. “They come in and fill voids of need for individuals.”

  • “When we look at vulnerabilities, mental health and people’s support networks play a role in victimization. Many of the girls at Journey House lack substantial support networks. Unfortunately, that puts them at risk for being exploited.”

    - Melissa Pelletier

With incidences of domestic minor sex trafficking on the rise and an at-risk population at Journey House, Pelletier and the treatment team have been proactive in addressing the issue.

In 2011, staff was trained by the Justice Resource Institute in the My Life My Choice curriculum. More recently, Pelletier implemented Not A #Number, a child trafficking and exploitation prevention curriculum from Love 146.

Melissa Pelletier, LCSW, clinical director at Journey House, runs groups that focus on preventing and educating residents on sex trafficking.

“The girls at Journey House have often been in many different treatment settings. Some have been in dozens of placements over the course of their life, and these are 16- and 17-year-old girls,” said Christy Calkins, assistant director at Journey House. “We have to think out of the box to find treatment modalities that are different and effective, and Melissa has done a terrific job finding and implementing programs that the girls can relate to.”

The Not A #Number curriculum is broken down into five modules – a general overview of human trafficking and exploitation; myths and misconceptions; the power of language; vulnerabilities and healthy vs. unhealthy relationships; and reducing risky behavior and getting help.

“The girls love this curriculum. It’s very interactive and brings a lot of current issues into discussion,” Pelletier said. “For example, we looked at the song by 50 Cent called P.I.M.P. and how so much of this exploitation is mainstreamed into our culture and normalized, and how it’s even considered to be ‘cool’ to take advantage of people.”

Although some girls at Journey House have first-hand experiences with trafficking, the training and education can be beneficial to anyone.

“Even if this hasn’t happened to you, maybe it happened to a friend or a family member, and you can bring this knowledge, because the help and resources are out there,” Pelletier said.

For more information on domestic minor sex trafficking, visit DCF’s Human Anti-trafficking Response Team (HART) website.