NEW CANAAN — According to the Department of Children and Families, there are 634 known cases of slavery in Connecticut. Tammy Sneed, director of gender-responsive adolescent services, said in the first two quarters of 2017, there have been 111 referrals to the department about suspected cases.

“Looking back and collecting data from 2008, we’re probably at 800, if not more,” she said of reported cases.

The Grace Farms Foundation has decided to do something. In 2019, the foundation will launch “Unchain,” a campaign to increase public awareness and activism around modern slavery. On Saturday, the foundation, in collaboration with Geometry Global, J. Walter Thompson, Shazam and Thomson Reuters, will host a benefit to raise money and partnership support for the campaign.

“As we celebrate our second anniversary this October, we look far into the future to a world where everyone is truly free and slavery is a thing of the past,” said Sharon Prince, foundation president and chairwoman, in a news release. “Together with the help of forward-thinking industry leaders such as WPP agencies Geometry Global, J. Walter Thompson, as well as Shazam, we will target all forms of modern-day slavery and build a platform that brings communities together to advance good in the world.”

Krishna Patel, the foundation’s justice initiative director and general counsel, knows all too well the reality of modern-day slavery. A former prosecutor with 17 years of experience in law enforcement, Patel was recruited by Grace Farms Foundation in 2015 to help with its justice initiative, which is focused on modern slavery.

“I’ve seen a career where this has been a constant threat,” Patel said.

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Benefit set

The Unchain benefit is Saturday from 4 to 9 p.m. at Grace Farms in New Canaan, 365 Lukes Wood Road. To purchase tickets, visit 501auctions.com/unchain

Patel said she worked since 2005 to actively prosecute trafficking cases in Connecticut, some with victims as young as 12. While many cases involve undocumented immigrants or United States citizens who were trafficked abroad, she said children in particular often fall victim to this crime, with over 600 children tagged as being at high risk for trafficking in the state. Over 70 percent of slaves are women and children.

“We worked a great deal with the Department of Children and Families because we know it’s a vulnerable spot,” she said, “It’s vulnerable everywhere throughout the country.”

According to Sneed, she’s received tips about cases all across the state, especially as more victims are targets through the internet. She said the Fairfield County area, being on Interstate 95, has seen a lot of cases of hotels being used as places where victims of sex trafficking meet up with people who use their services.

“The 95 corridor is definitely a hot spot, being right between New York, Massachusetts and Long Island,” Sneed said. “One of the dynamics is that hotels in Connecticut are cheaper than New York or Boston. It does attract victims and perpetrators in the area.”

According to Patel, the legal definition of slavery is broad, encompassing any work with commercial value done under some type of coercion. Any person under 18 forced into the sex trade also falls under the definition of slavery.

“We see a lot of minor sex trafficking here in Connecticut, children forced into prostitution,” she said. “Many of them are advertised on places like Backpage. They’re in our strip clubs; they’re advertised by pimps.”

Patel said it’s also common to see trafficking cases on the labor side involving immigrants from South or Central America who are working in food service, retail or agricultural. Oftentimes, the victims are undocumented, making it easier to control them. In cases of sex trafficking, it’s often children who have been in the foster system and suffered neglect. Patel said pimps often prey on these feelings, luring the victims into feeling loved and cared for so they don’t want to leave.

“It’s not because of foster care,” Patel said. “It’s because of the difficulty and neglect in life that put them in foster care. Pimps are very good at creating a family net.”

“When we went in to rescue victims ... they saw us as taking them away from one person that loved them,” Patel said.

Grace Farms Foundation’s “Unchain” campaign will focus on how to think of issues related to slavery on a global, national and local level and come up with policy changes and social changes. Created in collaboration with WPP agencies, the campaign uses advice from experts and survivors to help first and foremost educate the public on this often ignored issue.

Patel said in addition to teaching people the signs of human trafficking and how to say something if they see something, it’ll teach people how to be more responsible consumers. Many companies do a lot of work with trafficking, and Patel said the campaign hopes to educate the public on what certain brands are doing so they can support companies accordingly.

“Even though we focus so heavily on things like minor sex trafficking, 70 percent of trafficking is labor,” Patel said. “That’s fueled by our consumer habits. There’s no transparency in corporate supply chains for you to understand how to purchase better. Part of this entire campaign and I think the power of this campaign is to change hearts and minds of consumers to force our appropriations to do more.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata