Sex trafficking happens in York Region, and Crime Stoppers, York Regional Police and 360kids are working together to try and end it.
A new website has been launched in partnership with Renegade Media that aims to educate kids and community members about how to protect themselves from trafficking and the signs that someone may be a victim.
The primary message is to prevent this from happening to you or someone you know, said Sydney Teixeira, content manager at Renegade Media. She said it was created to "raise awareness about the reality of sex trafficking in our community and help educate potential victims about the warning signs they can look for to protect themselves and their friends."
Trafficking — which involves a victim being exploited, coerced and often manipulated to participate in the sex trade for the financial gain of the trafficker — could be happening anywhere in the region, including in hotels and short term rentals.
Gary McBride, a detective sergeant with YRP's human trafficking unit, said every day their officers interact with victims, people on the verge of being exploited, and sex workers.
"At the end of the day, it can be anywhere," he said. "They may be in York Region today. They may be in another region tomorrow. They may be in other province next week."
He said it is important for parents to have conversations with their kids to ideally prevent these incidents before they go to far.
But often victims of sex trafficking do not have strong family connections and that's where the organization 360kids can offer support.
About 10 years ago, it was approached by the government and YRP and asked about supporting young survivors of sex trafficking. COO Bonnie Harkness said they couldn't turn their backs and that's how the HOPE program was launched.
The program provides transitional housing and other services for females aged 16 to 26 escaping human trafficking in York Region.
However, Harkness said this program provides support after the fact and work needs to be done to make sure no other kids are trafficked. She said 360kids often sees the most vulnerable youth in our community and those kids can be a target for these kinds of crimes.
“Our kids are vulnerable and pimps are going to target vulnerable kids,” she said.
That's why education and this new website are key.
This campaign is part of Crime Stoppers Month, which is recognized throughout Canada in January. The theme this year is Stand Up, Stand Together.
It calls on residents to stand up and say something when they see the signs of a crime, like sex trafficking.
"The police can’t do this alone. We rely on the members of our community to stand up and speak out about crimes and provide information when they know that a crime is about to or has been committed because we all want to live in a safe community,” said Al Almeida, deputy chief at YRP.
Anyone can contact Crime Stoppers of York Region at 1-800-222-tips or online at www.1800222tips.com to leave an anonymous tip about sex trafficking or any other crime.
Crime Stoppers has taken additional measures by adding technology for Uber drivers to directly report suspected trafficking through their app and encourage other members of the service industry, such as hotel workers, to become familiar with the signs and report any potential incidents.
It is working in other areas to explore this opportunity for other jobs and further prevent sex trafficking.