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Children for sale: Canada’s youth at the heart of the rising sex trade

Click to play video 'Grassroots project supporting survivors of human trafficking' Grassroots project supporting survivors of human trafficking
WATCH ABOVE (Nov. 13): Project iRISE is a survivor-led not-for-profit initiative launched by Rhonelle Bruder, survivor and anti-trafficking expert. The project provides innovative skills-based training, education and the removal of branding tattoos. Susan Hay has the story – Nov 13, 2020

For Michaela, it was a battle with mental health at 17 which led her to become homeless, vulnerable and the perfect target for Canada’s sex trafficking industry.

“Someone who endured human trafficking has been through the unspeakable — verbal, sexual, financial, physical and psychological abuse — is present in almost every case,” she said.

For her own safety, Global News is not using Michaela’s real name.

After being sent to a facility that was meant to improve her mental health, Michaela said it made her feel isolated and with no family support, she left. She then ended up in a youth homeless shelter.

It was at the shelter where she said she met a girl who pretended to be her friend as a way to trick her into the sex trade.

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“Later on I found out she was recruiting girls to get herself out,” she said.

Read more: Sucked into sex trafficking, London woman shares experience in wake of LAWC funding cuts

Michaela, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ2 community, said the manipulation started slow, first becoming friends with the girl, hanging out together at the mall and out for dinner. She said her new ‘friend’ even pretended to be romantically involved with her to gain her trust.

“One night we asked to stop at the youth shelter if we could take a night out and go party and that’s when everything changed for me,” Michaela said.

The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hotel room with her friend gone and two men there instead. She said she never saw the girl again.

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At a time of feeling all alone once again, Michaela said one of the men offered to help her leave the shelter, get a driver’s license, and even pay to get into the right mental health facility. All of this, she would soon find out, was the latest in a stream of broken promises to manipulate her.

“The one guy ended up trafficking me for about a month, and then I got away and then it kind of happened somehow that I came back and it was another month until I actually ran away with the little money I had,” she said.

Looking back, Michaela said they targeted her vulnerabilities, being alone, struggling with mental health, and being homeless.

“It’s hard as a young person wanting to fit in or to feel loved or even to have the new Gucci bag or to be offered a luxurious lifestyle and get out of the situation that you’re currently in,” she said.

“Whether that be an abusive environment, mental illness, homelessness, or even as simple as wanting to meet up with someone who promised to offer you the world, this is how they choose their next victim to ruin their life.”

Read more: ‘Perfect storm’: Growing calls to address domestic violence during coronavirus

Michaela was trafficked for a second time earlier this year at 23.

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“It’s very hard to even talk about it, but to say it and admit it to myself that I kind of had a gut feeling,” she said.

“It was not a very honest thing, just literally preying on my mental health and I was very mentally unwell and I didn’t want to go back into the shelter system.”

She said a friend offered her a place to stay and help pay off her debt which was all a way to take advantage of the situation and put her back up for sale on apps used to purchase sex.

“I saw red flags, but it was better than being on the street,” Michaela said.

She said she was once again sold for sex and it was only when she got the courage to threaten to call the police several weeks later that she was able to leave.

Because of her experiences, Michaela said suffers from PTSD causing her to have blank spaces about her time being sexually assaulted.

Read more: Women facing more violence amid coronavirus pandemic: national survey

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Kelly Franklin, chief executive director and founder of Courage for Freedom, told Global News youth are usually sexually exploited for at least two years before adults in their lives realize what’s happening and intervene.

Her organization is a non-for-profit focused on delivering frontline support for sexually assaulted minors and raising awareness about sex trafficking.

“We’re seeing an increase in it becoming an issue that is younger and younger,” Franklin said.

Franklin’s organization is based in Ontario and works with victims, including Michaela helping them process their trauma. She said it can sometimes take victims up to 18 times before they are able to permanently leave trafficking.

The larger issue

Michaela said she is sharing her story to bring attention to a larger issue, the role children and young adults play in the growing sex trafficking industry in Canada.

With human trafficking on the rise worldwide, it’s sex trafficking that’s become a major issue in Ontario, making child sex trafficking a more prevalent problem now than ever before. At least 60 per cent of all trafficking victims in the country come from Ontario and over 97 per cent of all cases are female.

Addressing trafficking in Ontario is made all the more difficult with the 400-series highways, making it easier for predators to ferry girls not just across provincial borders but the Canada-United States border as well.

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Agencies that help victims are noticing a decrease in age and an increase in the online marketplace.

Read more: London, Ont., sex trafficking survivor sends message of hope at Shine the Light launch

According to a 2018 Statistics Canada report on trafficking in Canada, 28 per cent of all trafficking victims in the country are under 18 with 75 per cent of all victims under 25.

“The majority of victims are not people being brought from other countries into Canada, it’s Canadian young women,” said Jennifer Richardson, director of the Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Office.

“The youngest victim I’ve ever worked with in my career was eight, but I’ve worked with hundreds of 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds over my career — I would probably even venture to say thousands.”

The Government of Ontario revealed its five-year anti-human trafficking strategy in 2020, investing $307 million to combat what it called “one of the fastest-growing crimes” and reported that the average age for victims targeted is just 13 years old.

Julia Drydyk, executive director at the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking (CCEHT), said traffickers are not looking for a specific demographic but rather it’s vulnerability. She said traffickers will often pose as someone that cares about them, like a boyfriend or friend, to initially gain their trust.

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“They’ll find out what their dreams and aspirations are, but also their weaknesses and they’ll use that to manipulate them into the sex trade,” Drydyk said.

Because of this, a lot of victims end up coming from the foster care system, where Indigenous and LGBTQ2 children are over-represented.

Speaking about vulnerabilities, Richardson said children who have been kicked out of their home or who don’t have community support are what traffickers look for.

She said Indigenous children are considered one of the most vulnerable groups because of the “impacts of hundreds of years of traumatic history” (for example, residential schools and the ’60s Scoop) that their communities have faced and are still facing today.

Despite the risk to certain groups, Richardson said she worries too many parents think it will never be their family.

“I have personally had to tell the way too many parents about their child being trafficked; way too many for Canada in my opinion,” she said.

Read more: ‘Back to square one’: Calls to domestic violence lines jump again as coronavirus surges

The role of the internet and porn industry

Although children in foster care make up a big part of the conversation, in the age of technology predators have easier access to all children now than ever before.

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Richardson said traffickers and pedophiles could be reaching out to 100 children within an hour on social media and wait to see which children respond.

She said predators target children on popular apps like TikTok and Instagram or reach out on other social media platforms.

A 2016 research report on child sexual abuse images on the Internet by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection found that 78 per cent of all pictures and video analyzed depicted children under 12, with 63 per cent of those being under eight. Of the reported images, 80 per cent were girls and at least half of all images showed incidents of sexual assault.

The report also revealed 97 per cent of the content involved explicit sexual assaults when adult males were visible with children in the images and video.

“It’s very challenging for police to kind of keep up to the amount of images and videos that are being sent back and forth and sold to online traffickers,” Richardson said.

Michaela said the other key to the online market is the apps used to post victim’s profiles, for predators to arrange a meeting and purchase them.

“If all these underground things got shut down then there would be fewer issues, in regard to human trafficking,” she said.

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Michaela said if more of these websites used to sell girls and women for sex were better monitored, more girls could be saved.

Read more: More funding for shelters needed to help domestic violence victims in Canada: report

The barriers to enforcement, convictions

There is one thing both police and all of the experts interviewed for this story agreed on: convictions being so reliant on victim testimonies is a major barrier to holding traffickers accountable.

Statistics Canada reported in 2018 that non-human trafficking cases are more likely to result in a guilty decision.

Data from the report revealed that cases linked to an incident of human trafficking that did not involve charges of human trafficking were slightly more likely to result in a guilty decision than cases where at least one charge was specific to human trafficking.

“We see the numbers of charges going up, but the convictions have stayed pretty steady and it’s still a very underreported crime,” Richardson said.

“We know that the amount of data we have concerning the criminal offences or convictions is nowhere near the number of people that are being trafficked, especially children.”

Factors like long waits to go to court (victims can sometimes wait up to 18 months before the trial begins), challenging legislation, and changing technology that traffickers use to evade police are all factors making it difficult to charge and then convict them.

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“Many victims of human trafficking do not identify as victims,” OPP Det. Sgt. Coyer Yateman with the service’s anti-human trafficking team said.

“It is common for victims to believe that their traffickers are helping or caring for them, and therefore they may show their loyalty to their traffickers.”

Yateman said the manipulation of victims adds another layer to the challenges of these investigations.

Government response and need for education

Of the $307 million the Ford government announced for its anti-human trafficking strategy between 2020 to 2025, $27 million will be going towards a community support fund and $19 million towards an Indigenous-led initiatives fund. It was also announced $20 million in yearly funding would go toward anti-human trafficking.

“We held 13 roundtables talking with frontline workers, women, survivors, families, police services and we heard firsthand at that point that there needed to be annualized funding for organizations who were doing such great work,” Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s associate minister of children and women’s issues, told Global News.

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In August, the provincial government launched two new educational resources to help prevent human trafficking by teaching kids how to recognize if a trafficker is targeting them. The first is “the trap” an immersive chat experience. The second tool, called “Speak Out: Stop Sex Trafficking,” is an Indigenous-focused anti-human trafficking educational campaign, designed by and for Indigenous people.

During the summer, Dunlop said they also did a redesign of the welfare system, now look a “prevention-focused system rather than just the protection.”

Read more: Loss of funding to fight human trafficking to impact over 600 women and girls, LAWC says

The Measures to Address Prostitution Initiatives (MAPI) fund, a five-year program run by the federal government, ended in March. MAPI provided funding for women and girls who were trafficked and the organizations that help victims were left without help.

In September 2019, the federal government announced $75 million in funding to create a national strategy to combat human trafficking. However, funds have been slow to roll out

Meanwhile, Michaela said what’s needed is more mental health supports for victims of trafficking. She noted there is a lack of dedicated supports and more resources to help victims and more education for officers when dealing with victims are needed.

She said she is working hard to overcome her trauma and PTSD as she works to build a new life for herself.

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“I am still scared a lot of the time and have nightmares and it affects my relationship to this day after going through this.”

“I don’t know who to trust, I don’t know if I feel strong enough to trust my gut for a red flag, because now everything in the world is a red flag to me and I shouldn’t have to live my life like that, nor should anyone.

“I want to help at least one person, that’s my goal in life. That’s why I want to go to college for mental health and addiction and volunteer in any way I can to help bring awareness.”