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Community awareness can help tackle sex trafficking, police say

Parents and other adults need to be aware that 'good girls' from 'good families' are being lured into prostitution, a York Regional Police human trafficking unit detective said at a Character Community event addressing issues facing youth in our communities

Human sex traffickers are targeting your daughters and bringing prostitution off the streets into our suburban neighbourhoods and onto the internet and social media.

“Who are the victims?” asked York Regional Police Det. Danielle Beaulieu at the Character Community of York Region’s Leading with Character Breakfast Nov. 27. “They can be your daughter, your niece, your neighbour.”

Human trafficking is “modern-day slavery” that ensnares mostly women and children into a life of prostitution, addiction, and physical, emotional and financial abuse, said Beaulieu, who has investigated, supervised and managed cases in the force’s human trafficking unit since 2017.

Beaulieu was joined by a number of experts who spoke about real and troubling issues faced by today’s youth in York Region, not only sex trafficking, but also gangs, hate crimes and discrimination against LGBTQ youth, cannabis use, and rising suicide rates.

Human sex trafficking is the issue most adults are surprised to hear is facing youth in our communities, Beaulieu said, with a clear warning that parents and other adults need to be aware of the risk indicators.

“Just think about this actually occurring in your neighbourhoods and where you are working. Think about each word I say. Human trafficking, in a nutshell, is a labour and service provided out of fear. People are being exploited, it’s modern-day slavery,” Beaulieu said.

Trafficking is occurring in subdivisions, where homes are being rented, and in Airbnbs, she said, as well as in local hotels, and traffickers are “advertising” on social media and Craig’s list as if they are entrepreneurs.

This is where the community comes in, she said, in helping to tackle the rising number of youth being lured into sex trafficking.

“You’re a mother (or) a teacher, identifying the risk factors early on is how we help these girls.”

While males are recruited, it’s predominantly female women and children, Beaulieu said, from all backgrounds and walks of life.

York police collaborated with the Children’s Aid Society of York Region and York University on a research project that reviewed trafficking cases from 2008 and 2016, which revealed the largest risk factor for recruitment was being under the age of 18 and involvement with child protection services. These girls are typically being recruited at a younger age, 14.9 years. Risk factors included childhood maltreatment, substance abuse, previous criminal involvement and residence in a group home.

York police have developed a protocol with CAS, because of the higher risk of exploitation (29 per cent), that allows suspected cases to be reported to police in the best interests of the children.

“We also have kids in high schools who come from very good homes and have good parents. It’s not just the most at-risk (youth), this affects everybody,” she stressed.

York police noted a culture shift occurring from 2013 to 2018, with teenagers without the common risk factors being recruited by traffickers who also didn’t fit the profile.

“Pimps can be anybody,” Beaulieu said, adding her first investigation in 2017 involved a high school student whose cellphone texts revealed she was recruiting her friend to come to the ‘telly’ — slang for a hotel — to make ‘big bens’, or a lot of money.

Both girls, who were from “good families” and doing well at school, would not be identified as ‘at risk’, she explained. Peer pressure is a factor in these cases, and victims are too embarrassed to talk to police.

As part of the unit’s investigations and collection of evidence, cellphones are confiscated.

“I get to read the (cellphone) messages of how women and children are being sold, over and over again, and they’re saying to the person who is exploiting them, ‘no more, I can’t do it anymore, I’m tired’. They’re being fed drugs (and) alcohol to provide the services that they need to do,” she said.

Identifying and investigating the cases can be a challenge, Beaulieu said, because they can be masked as domestic violence. The victims often identify the pimps as being a boyfriend or spouse.

“The younger their age, the harder it is for them to understand (they are victims),” she added. “They become very protective of the person they believe has their best interests at heart.”

“They do not identify themselves as victims of sex trafficking. Every time I do an interview, it’s usually the same story, they have been sold ‘a dream’ — ‘we’re saving up for a condominium’, ‘we’re saving up for a car’, ‘I have no friends, this is the first time someone has ever cared’."

The victims are often isolated, their identification documents are confiscated by the pimp, and they are moved across the province, often having no knowledge of where they are.

According to Beaulieu, risk indicators include:

  • younger girls wearing a lot of make-up, and having unexplained money and expensive clothing;

  • sexualized behaviour online;

  • secretive behaviour regarding their phones and social media;

  • an older boyfriend;

  • running away from home or skipping school;

  • calling home with excuses that sound rehearsed.

Identifying the risk indicators can be a challenge because “they can look like average teenage problems", Beaulieu said.

Adults also need to be alert to indicators of suicide, which is the leading cause of non-accidental death among young people across Canada, said Lisa Woodcock, a registered social worker who is the program manager at Victim Services of York Region.

“We see, year after year, from province to province, even in our community, it’s rising all the time,” Woodcock said.

There were 181 reported suicide deaths in Ontario in 2016 among eight to 24-year-olds; in 2005, that number was less than 150, she said, adding the numbers are higher in reality, with suicide often reported as an accidental death.

Technology and social media —particularly, online bullying  — are contributing to the rising statistics, Woodcock said.

“It can be challenging for us adults to really get a read on our kids because we’re not necessarily interacting face-to-face as we once were,” she said.

Parents can be aware of signs of lower self-esteem and higher anxiety, Woodcock said, and ensure their children take advantage of programs that help increase their coping abilities.

She acknowledged the positive impact schools are having in teaching skills and offering resources that help young people reduce stress and anxiety.

Ultimately, adults need to ensure they are encouraging youth to communicate and to listen without judging.

Research indicates LGBTQ youth, particularly racialized queer youth, face significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts — these are “massive issues”, said  David Collict, director of support and resources for Pflag York Region, many of them resulting from discrimination, be it overt, physical assaults to daily verbal harassment and passive comments.

Removing institutional and cultural barriers is important, Collict said, including ensuring that schools offer a sex education curriculum that addresses sexual identity and safer sex education.

“That’s the type of important information we need in our school system and we need our public institutions advocating for,” he said. “As we move forward, I think it’s important to normalize queer experiences … it’s definitely an issue and something we can’t turn a blind eye to.” 

Other panel members of the Leading with Character event were:

  • York Regional Police Const. Jesse Mann, who is currently seconded to the Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario as the intelligence coordinator for York Region, Peel Region and the City of Toronto pertaining to illicit marijuana trade and the new Cannabis Act.

  • York Regional Police Const. Robyn Nomore, a Community Services school resource officer who has also served as a member of the guns and gang prevention unit, and youth engagement team.

  • Susanne Cappuccitti, executive director of the Character Community Foundation of York Region.