Human trafficking is modern-day slavery, said Sex Crimes Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins at this year’s sexual awareness month kick-off at police headquarters on May 5.
“It’s about violence, control and coercion,” she told the audience.
‘It’s a crime that our society unfortunately is not immune to and we have seen many examples here in Toronto and across Ontario and Canada of individuals who have been sexually exploited,” said Chief Bill Blair. “For the past several years, there has been an evolution in law enforcement thinking and in the thinking of the criminal justice system with respect to sex trade workers…We have a responsibility to protect those who are being victimized.
“The nature of the sex trade has changed significantly over the past several years in our society as we are becoming more digitally driven. In many respects, this has made the challenge of protecting those who are being controlled and exploited more difficult in that much of this crime in the digital environment is invisible.”
Carly Kalish, an individual and family therapist with EMYS, spoke about the long and valued partnership her organization has had with the Service.
An accredited adolescent mental health and addiction centre providing a range of innovative, individual and collaborative programming, EMYS works closely with the Service’s human trafficking unit.
“This unit understands that supporting survivors and connecting them to resources is a priority,” said Kalish. “…Events like this are so important because they open people’s eyes to the realities of human trafficking in our city. They also help break down barriers in tackling the issue.”
Kalish recounted the story of a domestic human trafficking survivor – Olivia – who wanted to attend the event.
She was however unable to do because her case is still before the courts.
“It’s a terrifying situation when somebody holds any kind of power over another person,” said Olivia, in a letter that Kalish read. “I was only a teenager and I was living in a nightmare… Before I knew it, I was entrenched in the sex industry that I never knew existed and it was in my own city.”
Shuffled around the city and completely isolated, Olivia said she felt worthless, hopeless and completely trapped. She said her life changed forever the day the Toronto Police Sex Crimes Unit entered her hotel room.
“I was terrified, thinking I had done something wrong, but they assured me that was not the case,” added Olivia. “In a completely respectful manner, they checked my identification to ensure I was of legal age and they simply offered their resources. They informed me that many individuals in the sex industry are victims of exploitation and if I was in a bad situation, they were there to help with zero judgement.
“…It took me a while to come around but, when I finally decided I had endured enough of an emotional torment, I picked up the phone and I called the Toronto Police Sex Crimes Unit. They were there to help just like they said, and they were there when I needed to find appropriate therapy and they were there when I eventually decided to press charges.”
Michele Anderson, Covenant House’s human trafficking specialist, said her organization sees about a dozen cases of domestic and international human trafficking annually.
“But we know those numbers are likely far higher as young people are often too frightened to disclosed their experiences,” she said. “We find those young people are among the most damaged that we see and often need long-term support for physical and psychological problems as well as addictions.
Covenant House, which offers 24/7 intervention and long-term residential programming, provides trauma counselling and other supports for sexual exploitation and human trafficking victims.
“Our staff helps them in rebuilding their lives through counselling and our on-site programs,” said Anderson. “We also help youth navigate the justice system in the event they are prepared to lay charges and we help those from other countries with immigration issues.”
Anderson told the story of Sara, sexually exploited at gunpoint by a pimp posing as a police officer.
“It was a very, very traumatic experience for Sara,” she said. “We supported her in getting medical attention and going to the police which, at that time, was the juvenile task force.”
Sara went on to graduate from university with a degree in sociology and spend a year in Ireland on a placement.