Resident battles human trafficking

Stratford resident Alicia Kinsman will be taking a special trip down to Washington, D.C. in early April.

No, it won’t be to see the famous blooming dogwood trees along the Potomac River.

Rather, Kinsman, a Director of Victim Services at the International Institute of Connecticut (IICONN) office in Bridgeport, will travel to D.C. to accept a 2012 FBI Community Leadership Award for her outstanding work with survivors of human trafficking in Connecticut.

The institute is a statewide non-profit agency dedicated to the needs of immigrants, refugees, and their families. It has offices in Bridgeport, Stamford, Derby and Hartford, and its anti-human trafficking program, called Project Rescue, helps survivors of human trafficking to start over again, to be reunited with family, achieve legal immigration status, employment, education, or whatever else is needed to heal.

Kinsman told the Star that her work is not readily known by the general public, but it is important as well as emotionally rewarding.

“I’m quite humbled by this award,” she said, while crediting other members of her staff as well as the institute’s law enforcement partners. She added, “It does feel good to be recognized by work that I am quite passionate about.”

Kinsman was nominated for the award by the FBI’s field office in New Haven. According to the FBI, “This special award was formally created in 1990 as a way to honor individuals and organizations for their efforts in combating crime, terrorism, drugs, and violence in America.”

“I’ve been working with survivors of human trafficking for more than two years now,” Kinsman said, “and as we continue to do outreach and education on the issue, it still surprises people that the clients we work with don’t fit the picture that is most often associated with human trafficking or splashed on newspaper headlines.

“Many people think that these are mainly young Asian or eastern European women sold into the sex trade. Although that does occur, the survivors we work with are men and women ranging in age from teens to mid-40s and older. They are both foreign born and U.S. citizens.” She says that because victims do not fit the stereotype the crime so often goes unnoticed.

Kinsman noted that “my day-to-day activities can get quite emotionally draining, as the clients I represent have been severely traumatized, some having suffered really unimaginable abuses.

“Nonetheless, to those clients who have uncertain, or nonexistent legal immigration status, or who are currently in removal proceedings, I get to be this little beacon of hope and justice, and a chance at being reunited with their family, perhaps gaining legal status, and remaining here in the United States to start a new life. To be able to have a role in creating that kind of a happy ending is really an award itself.”

A native of Bridgeport, Kinsman moved to Stratford four years ago with her husband, Douglas, along with their son. She attended Notre Dame High School in Fairfield and graduated from Providence College in 2004 with a degree in Spanish and business studies. After college, she moved to Spain and worked in marketing, although she soon found herself wanting to do something “more meaningful” to her.

She returned to the states, attended law school and while studying law she volunteered at the institute. “After a couple of months of volunteering, I graduated law school and passed the Connecticut bar exam,” she said. Kinsman joined the paid staff at the institute in the Fall of 2010 where she has quickly made her mark.

Kinsman was reluctant to share specific case stories due to confidentiality and legal considerations.

“My clients are real, they’re here in Connecticut” and although each story is different, “they are in some ways quite similar,” Kinsman said. “All of our clients were exploited — someone or a group of people, exploited some sort of vulnerability — be it age, fear, existing trauma, sex, an addiction — for financial gain. Some were forced to work long hours on farms or nurseries, with no break, and no pay, while their immigration documents and passports were held by the employer. Some were forced, through the psychological and emotional control of their pimps to perform commercial sex acts.

“Still others were recruited to work in homes as nannies or housekeepers only to be forced to work all day and all night under threats of abuse, harm to family members, and deportation, for little or no pay.

“Their stories are different but they all boil down to the same thing — forced work, modern day slavery.”

Case referrals come from local and state police, the FBI and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. In the third quarter of 2012, a total of 30 referrals from Connecticut were reported to the NHTRC, including four from Bridgeport.

“We take over from there,” she said, screening and finding appropriate housing, food and interpreter services for victims, as needed.

Cases are also generated via walk-ins. “I had a case of a woman who walked in interested in a U-Visa and in hearing her story, some more information came out that sounded like human trafficking,” and further investigation ensued.

“Most importantly for me is not the past, and not what has happened to the survivor of human trafficking specifically. That’s the past. And no, the trauma probably won’t ever completely disappear.

“But what I get to do, and what brings me the most joy, is to help that survivor get to his or her ‘future.’ I get to be a glimmer of hope, the chance at just a little bit of justice.”

And when Alicia Kinsman sees the fruit of her efforts, where victims are allowed to start over again and begin to heal, it makes all the hard work and frustrations seem worth it.

She will receive her award on April 5 at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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