Violence Prevention Grey Bruce

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VPGB Contributes Human Trafficking Article to Grey Bruce Kids

We are pleased to announce the release of an article about Human Trafficking that we contributed to Grey Bruce Kids magazine. Check it out at this link to view the full piece in the Summer 2020 issue.

By Jon Farmer and Chelsea Donohue

As parents and caring adults, it’s our job to teach young people how to safely live in a world that can be dangerous. That’s why we teach them to look both ways before crossing the street; if they can’t recognize danger, they can’t avoid it. We all tend to agree that teaching road safety is common sense. Although it may not be as obvious to most of us, it’s time that we take the same approach to human trafficking. While we might prefer not to think about the frightening reality of human trafficking, just like road safety, there are things we can teach young people that will help them recognize the danger and avoid the risks.

What do “human trafficking” and “sex trafficking” mean?

Human trafficking is not a topic of everyday conversation. When it does appear in pop culture, through movies like Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise, human trafficking is sensationalized and presented as a problem in far away places where the victims are naive tourists or poor migrants searching for a better life. In reality, human trafficking is a problem everywhere, including Grey and Bruce counties.

Human trafficking is an umbrella term and encompasses many forms of abuse and coerced work, from forced labour and the removal of organs, to forced marriage and sex trafficking. It encompasses any form of modern slavery but in this article we’ll focus specifically on sex trafficking because it poses the greatest risk to young people in our region. 

Sex trafficking is a crime defined in Canadian law as the recruiting, transporting, harbouring and/or the exchange of a person by another, with the use of force, coercion or threat, for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.

Sex trafficking is not the same as sex work. Sex workers have choice; they control how and when they work, who their clients are, and what happens to their earnings. It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to do sex work in Canada. People being trafficked do not have choice. They are threatened, isolated, trapped and manipulated through physical, emotional and mental abuse. Victims are frequently under the age of 18. They are being exploited sexually and other people are making money as a result. Sex trafficking is also known as commercial sexual exploitation. And sex traffickers are also known as pimps. Most traffickers are older males, but people can also be trafficked by women and by their peers. 

Stages of Manipulation

There are identifiable stages to human trafficking. Contrary to stereotypes, sex trafficking rarely begins with a sudden kidnapping. In fact, most trafficked people don’t realize they’re being trafficked; they often think their trafficker is their boyfriend. In these cases, sex trafficking is the final of four phases of manipulation: Luring, Grooming/Gaming, Coercion/Manipulation, and Sexual Exploitation. Recognizing and understanding these four stages are  important first steps to helping those young people who are at risk.

Phase 1: Luring

During this early phase a trafficker identifies a vulnerable person as a potential victim. They may reach out online, through social media networks, or through social connections to find someone who is insecure, has weak social ties, or who wants to live a better life. In this phase the trafficker is learning as much about their victim as possible: their hopes, fears, insecurities and social connections. 

Phase  2: Grooming/Gaming:

This phase is similar to the honeymoon phase of a relationship. The trafficker showers the victim with attention, gifts and promises of a better life while continuing to collect information and possibly introducing the victim to drugs and sex. The trafficker increases his ability to manipulate his victim by making her think that he’s the only person who understands, accepts, or cares about her. This also begins to weaken her connections to other friends and family. 

Phase 3: Coercion and Manipulation:

When the trafficker has positioned himself as the primary connection in his victim’s life, the honeymoon is over. He acts differently, attacks her vulnerabilities and breaks down her self esteem and remaining connections to other supports. The victim becomes more isolated from family and friends and more reliant on the trafficker. During this phase he begins to connect sex with gifts or money. The trafficker withholds the positive attention, love or drugs from the victim while blaming her for the changes. This stokes her fears as he manipulates her to “make it up to him.”  

Phase 4: Sexual exploitation: 

In the final phase, the trafficker forces the victim to have sex with other people for drugs or money. Traffickers will often convince the victim that she owes it to him for the gifts, money and drugs he gave her during the previous phases of their relationship. This is referred to as a “debt bond.”  He will continue to break her down emotionally, mentally and physically by withholding things like food or drugs and convincing her that she will be arrested or shunned if she escapes or tells anyone what is happening. He may also directly threaten her safety or the safety of her family and friends. By the time that a victim is being sexually exploited, she often has no ability to process or understand what is happening to her, and many victims of human trafficking do not self-identify as a victim at all. 

Who is at risk?

We do not have the luxury of thinking of sex trafficking as a foriegn or big city problem. More than 90 per cent of human trafficking in Canada is domestic trafficking: the people being trafficked are trafficked within Canada’s borders. Sex trafficking is the most common form of human trafficking in Canada and more than 70 per cent of reported cases take place in Ontario. Sex trafficking is most common in places with easy access to potential customers and  transportation corridors where people can be moved easily. Urban areas along the 401 corridor have seen the highest concentration of human trafficking in Ontario but the problem exists everywhere as women and girls are recruited from  —  and moved around within  —  rural and remote communities as well. Trafficking is also more likely in areas with populations of transient male workers. Where there are people paying for sex, there are traffickers profiting from it. In fact, a trafficker can make as much as $250,000 per year from one victim. 

If we drew a Venn diagram of issues that can be uncomfortable for parents and their children to talk about openly, sex trafficking would overlap with relationships, sex, drugs and social media. The stigma and discomfort that can prevent young people from talking about these issues and their challenges can also make it more difficult for youth to seek support while in unhealthy and abusive relationships. 

As adults, we need to be aware of this problem and be prepared to recognize the signs, because young people are vulnerable to trafficking at as young as 12 or 13 years old. A 2012 study reported that 26 per cent of trafficking victims in Canada were under the age of 18. Among trafficking victims, 14 years old was the average age at which they were first trafficked.

We need to emphasize that anyone can experience human trafficking: men, women, boys, girls and gender non-binary folks. However, women and girls are at the highest risk. Overall, most trafficking in Canada involves Canadian-born females between the ages of 14 and 22. Seventy per cent of trafficked persons are under the age of 25. On top of this, people who are experiencing other forms of marginalization like racism, poverty, mental illness, abuse or neglect are at higher risk. 

The circumstances around trafficking can look different. In some cases the victim might go missing and be trafficked in other communities. In other cases the victim might still be living at home and attending school while being trafficked after school or on weekends. Although sex trafficking can take different forms, there are common steps that we can take to prevent it and to support victims. 

What Adults Can Do To Help

Prevention is always the most effective way to reduce harm; it’s why we teach kids to be careful crossing the street rather than waiting to pull them out of oncoming traffic. 

Guarding young people against human trafficking requires that we teach them to talk about those potentially awkward subjects. If a young person knows the difference between a healthy relationship and an abusive one, if they know what positive and fulfilling sexual relationships are, if they feel connected and supported, can talk to you about scary or stigmatized issues, and feel loved, then they will be less vulnerable to exploitation. 

Basic involvement in the life of a child or teen will help you know what they’re up to. Monitor what younger children are doing and sharing on social media. Have regular conversations with teens about their relationships, where they’re spending time and with whom. Paying attention to the life of a young person will also help you recognize warning signs.

Know the Warning Signs

People who are experiencing trafficking can be reluctant to seek help for many reasons. They might fear for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. They might fear police and not know where to go for help; they might feel ashamed, be addicted, feel indebted to the trafficker or not realize they’re being trafficked. As caring adults, we need to know the warning signs so we can ask the right questions when we suspect someone is being abused in these ways.

The warning signs are different depending on the phase of the trafficking. In the initial stages, a young person might withdraw from friends, families or interests. In this phase they might start skipping school, missing curfew, using drugs and spending a lot of time with a new boyfriend who they may not  introduce to their other friends or family. They might also receive new, expensive belongings as gifts from an unknown source. In these phases the young person’s behaviour will begin to change as they become less communicative, more secretive and more withdrawn. These changes can also present as increased drug uses, decreased school grades and inconsistent or falling attendance at school and extracurriculars.

In the later stages, a trafficked person might spend more time away from home or school but not say where they were. They might  have physical injuries or appear withdrawn, malnourished or afraid. New clothing, cash or hotel keys that they can’t explain, are also indicators. If you encounter a victim of trafficking in the community, you might notice that their clothing is sexually suggestive and that they don’t have personal possessions. This is a specific indicator for people who have been trafficked away from their homes or communities. During these later stages the trafficked person may appear submissive, confused about where they are, or have an inconsistent story. New tattoos are also a sign as traffickers will often brand their victims in this way with their initials, name, a logo or a symbol. 

If you recognize these warning signs, you can ask simple questions in much the same way you would if you suspected other forms of relationship abuse. It is important to remain calm and be open-minded when approaching this sensitive topic. The young person needs to feel safe in order to share their experiences with you. At first, they might be scared and resist discussing your concerns. When you create a safe environment for your child to share their experiences on their own terms, they will be more likely to feel comfortable opening up to you. Be patient. Let them know they do not have to talk about anything they don’t want to, and that you are there for them whenever and however they need you. When they are ready to talk about the situation, use open-ended questions and keep the pace of the conversation slow. You might start off by pointing out an observation such as, “I noticed you haven’t been spending as much time with your friends lately. Can you tell me more about that?” 

If you identify that a person has been trafficked, there are many local organizations that can support them, including women’s shelters, Victim Services, health care providers and police services. They can all provide information and confidential support. As trusted adults, it is our role both to promote safety and to empower young people to develop their own ability to protect themselves and to heal from harm. 

As we consider how to address the issue of sex trafficking in our communities we need to remember that it’s never too early to talk to children about healthy relationships. We need to teach young people to recognize that safety, trust, support and equality are essential in all friendships and romantic relationships. If they understand that, then they’ll be better equipped  to recognize signs of danger or abuse before they step out into a new relationship. With adults around them who understand and recognize the risks and who provide safe places to talk and confide, our young people will be better equipped to avoid becoming victims of sex trafficking.

If you want to learn more about preventing sex trafficking, there are resources available from provincial and federal governments, as well as national organizations like The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. Locally, Violence Prevention Grey Bruce was scheduled to host a free community forum about human trafficking at the end of March. The forum was going to include presentations from survivors of human trafficking and information about supports in Grey and Bruce. That event was postponed because of COVID-19 and if all goes well will take place this fall. Follow and find Violence Prevention Grey Bruce on Facebook and Twitter for updates about our work and this event. 

Jon Farmer is the coordinator of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce

Chelsea Donohue is the anti-human trafficking coordinator of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce

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