The teenage girls trapped in the sex trade in Toronto did not come to Canada in shipping containers. They were recruited from your backyard.
It is the message Toronto Police is delivering with the help of its community partners to middle- and high-school students as part of Project SAVE (Save & Assist Victims with Education).
“These are the girls next door… they could be my daughter,” said Human Trafficking Team Detective Sergeant Nunziato Tramontozzi, adding that 99% of the victims they have come into contact with, since the 2014 formation of the team, are born and raised in Canada. Most are teenagers. “They come from Toronto and all parts of Canada. A lot of people think they are only from marginalized communities but we’ve had victims whose parents are doctors, lawyer, police officers. It touches everyone.”
Tramontozzi said Project SAVE aims to arm young people to know when they see signs of human trafficking, whether for themselves or someone else.
“The biggest tool we have is education. We need to educate middle- and high-school students because traffickers are recruiting right out of those schools. If we can educate them, and let them know what it looks like, we can save some lives that way,” he said.
Project SAVE was celebrated as an example of great collaboration at a Sexual Assault Awareness Month event at police headquarters on May 16.
Ontario Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Marie-France Lalonde said the province is funding 18 pilot projects, including Project SAVE, that support a survivor-focused police response to sexual violence and harassment.
“Human trafficking is an incredibly complex crime and an abuse of human rights,” she said, of the need for collaboration to find solutions. “We are calling on all Ontarians through their actions and beliefs to make change happen. We all have a role to play in stopping sexual violence.”
Project SAVE is a youth-education program to middle- and high-school students, their families and teachers, on sex-related human-trafficking issues, especially those occurring in Toronto schools. It is also a program for comprehensive training for police officers on human-trafficking issues and focuses on victim management to provide better support to victims of sexual violence.
Project SAVE is supported by Ryerson University, Covenant House, East Metro Youth Services and Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre, who deliver presentations to young people after participating in a workshop to design the educational component.
Boost President & CEO Karyn Kennedy said the collaborative approach with police and other agencies is the most effective way to tackle human trafficking.
“Boost is extremely grateful to Toronto Police Service for taking the lead in this important initiative. Only through collaboration can we make a difference and prevent human trafficking. By working together we have a broader reach and can deliver a much stronger and more effective message,” Kennedy said.
Chief Mark Saunders said everyone can be deputized in the fight against human trafficking.
“It is a crime in plain sight so, the more people we can educate, the better we have a chance to reduce victimization,” Saunders said, of being vigilant. “We know when we have intervention early, we have success.”
Sex Crimes Inspector Pauline Gray said the Human Trafficking Team is the largest of its kind in the country, with 14 investigators.
In 2016, the team dealt with 236 occurrences, made 77 arrests and rescued 67 victims, almost two-thirds under 18.
“These women are often seduced by men seeking a normal relationship. This formality does not last long. The women are forced into sexually servicing multiple men a day, every day. The exploitation of these women and girls nets these predators up to $1,000 a day, every day,” Gray said.
Tramontozzi said that officers work with the same community agencies involved in Project SAVE to ensure the women and girls victimized by this crime get to move on with their lives and get justice.
“What they provide to these victims - counselling, medical services, education - all of that assists them to not get back in the game. If they don’t have those supports, they fall back into that game. They can fall back to that criminal support or have this positive support that will give them a clean and healthy lifestyle,” Tramontozzi said. “The traffickers prey on these women. They believe these women are so vulnerable, so broken, that they’ll never go to court. They’ll fall back into the lifestyle, or they may have mental-health or drug-dependency issues. The community partners bring that stability. That’s key to us getting convictions. We’ll have a victim in the right place, their life is stable and they can testify.”
Michele Anderson, of Covenant House, pointed to a recent case where social agencies and police advocated for a young woman to have her university tuition reinstated and marks expunged after falling into the sex trade.
“She could have lost everything. She would never have been able to return to her program if had we not advocated that her status be removed from her academic record. That door would have been closed,” Anderson said, noting that police and social agencies are working together all the time to ensure victims get their lives back on track.
A lot of these girls and women find themselves in difficult situations through no fault of their own, Tramontozzi said.
“We want them to go forward with their lives, get an education help them move forward on their own,” he said.