Journey to Justice: From reporting to convictions, the uphill climb for sex trafficking victims

Journey to Justice graphic .

Desperation led Morgan to ignore the “red flags” and respond to an online job posting, making her a target for sex trafficking.

This is the first part of our Journey to Justice series, which explores the emotional trauma survivors of sex trafficking experience going through the justice system to hold their traffickers accountable and the barriers to convicting them.

“I was looking for additional income on top of my full-time job at that point because I had a really large emergency bill that came in that I needed to pay.”

For her safety, Global News is only using Morgan’s first name.

In spring 2019, Morgan responded to an online ad for a part-time job with flexible hours. She said the opportunity appeared similar to other jobs she held that targeted students to do canvassing and get new marketing leads for companies.

“Because of my previous history of being trafficked in the past, I saw some red flags. It was one of those situations where I was ignoring the red flags because I was desperate to be able to pay off this emergency bill.”

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After meeting with the man who would become her trafficker, Morgan said she thought re-entering the sex trade would be a temporary solution until she was able to pay her bills, then walk away.

Just a few weeks in, her trafficker tried to make her indebted to him.

“He had said, ‘I’m going to be doing a professional shoot — I rent a mansion and then hire a photographer and professionally edit these photos, and you’ll just pay me back. We’ll just take it off of the percentage that you make,’” she explained.

“Now he’s already creating a situation where I owe him more, this is not just I have to pay him out a percentage of what I get every night, this is now he’s starting to rack up what’s going to be thousands of dollars worth of bills that I’m going to owe him.”

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Read more: Journey to Justice: How Ontario’s strategy to fight sex trafficking is changing

It quickly became clear to Morgan that this was not a deal she would be able to get out of any time soon. A week later she said her trafficker booked her to do a party for a well-known biker gang, and she knew she needed to get out.

“I was very much scared for my life at that point, because the knowledge of which group this was, and seeing friends that I knew going missing and not to be heard from again — you don’t know if that’s just because they’ve now been trafficked across the country, you don’t know if they’re still alive.”

Morgan said at this point she knew she had to go to the police, and through the support of the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC), they were able to set up a meeting with an officer from the human trafficking unit at LAWC’s office to help.

Morgan is sharing her story to bring attention to the emotional trauma victims go through in the court systems, the danger they face going up against their traffickers, and low conviction rates once the process is all over.

Julia Drydyk, executive director of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking (CCEHT), estimates less than 10 per cent of survivors of sex trafficking want to talk to law enforcement about what’s happened to them.

“There are huge barriers when it comes to coming forward pressing charges, but also engaging with law enforcement generally,” she said.

“Human trafficking is a high-reward, low-risk crime.”

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“Traffickers are doing this because it’s making them a ton of money, and then they know that the chances of charges being laid or convictions are incredibly small. So they’re gaming the system, and the fact that they know that it’s incredibly challenging to follow through with convictions to be able to continue to exploit young women in Canada.”

Though the term human trafficking is most commonly used, Drydyk said “the vast majority of human trafficking cases that we identified in Canada are sex trafficking cases.”

Read more: Journey to Justice: Empowering sex trafficking survivors in determining their own path forward

Trauma a barrier to building a case: police

According to Statistics Canada’s Trafficking in Persons in Canada report for 2018, 45 per cent of cases successfully linked to an incident of police-reported human trafficking did not involve any charges of human trafficking. More than half of cases linked to human trafficking — 54 per cent — involved charges for non-violent offences.

Andrew Taylor, detective staff sergeant with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) anti-human trafficking unit, said officers take a “victim-centred approach,” stating that their main priority is helping the person leave the trafficker, even if that means they are not able to lay a trafficking charge.

Taylor also noted that while they might not have enough evidence to lay a charge of trafficking, they may be able to lay other charges.

“I always say that our biggest barrier is actually obtaining a statement from a victim who is highly traumatized,” Taylor said.

“Typically, individuals will exit a situation because they’re at a tipping point within that exploitive cycle, something has happened to cause them to need to exit. At that point in time, they have decided or made the determination that they are going to exit with the police and make a statement. That is the beginning of an extremely long road for these individuals because they are so traumatized from that exploitation cycle.”

Unknown to Morgan when she came forward, London police had been working to build a case against her trafficker for some time, but with no one willing to testify, they were unable to arrest him or the woman working with him.

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

With her statement, police were able to arrest the man who trafficked her and the woman who helped him that same day, but Morgan said what transpired next was anything but quick or easy.

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“(Police) were initially really supportive and very helpful, but when it came to a point where I didn’t feel safe after reporting, there was very minimal help with that. I was basically on my own to try and figure it out.”

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While she received some help from police to move to a different apartment and a detective advocated for her to be able to break her lease, she felt like “once they got what they needed” she was “of no use to them anymore, so all of that promised support was gone.”

After the man and woman were released on probation, Morgan said the woman went back to her home in Quebec, but her trafficker proceeded to repeatedly harass her in person and daily over text leading up to and after the trial.

“I gave up reporting them (bail breaches), one because it pissed him off, and two because the human trafficking officer that I was dealing with gave me attitude about it, saying that there’s no way that they could enforce that.”

“The message that I got from that was, ‘Don’t waste our time,’ and so I stopped — I gave up.”

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Leading up to her day in court, Morgan said there were at least two times her trafficker showed up on the street she was living on and strangled her.

“I don’t even remember exactly what happened with this interaction or how I ended up on the ground, but I ended up with all of the skin missing on sections of my forearms from falling into the ground, bruises, and I went to the hospital both times.”

Read more: How the ‘never-ending’ court process re-traumatizes victims of human trafficking

Morgan reported the assault to police but nothing happened.

“That officer was actually really kind and really supportive, and I feel she handled it as best as she could, but what I was told was that it was basically my word against his and because it wasn’t caught on any camera that there wasn’t enough evidence to take it forward to court.”

Despite visible injuries and daily messages, Morgan said her trafficker was never arrested for any breaches of his bail conditions, and that it was only when he was rearrested for a separate issue that he would stop — until he was let out of jail and the harassment would continue all over again.

“We also see, like in other forms of sexual-based violence, that traffickers can be pretty quickly let out on bail,” Drydyk said. “So again, there’s that immediate security risk for the victim who has come forward knowing that their trafficker is out on the streets and that they might be at risk.”

Court process can be ‘incredibly traumatizing’

Both her trafficker and the woman helping him ultimately pleaded guilty, but not for trafficking.

The male trafficker pleaded guilty to procuring sexual services, material benefit from sexual services, and advertising sexual services, carrying with it a sentence of 18 months.

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, trafficking a person carries a maximum penalty of 14 years and a mandatory minimum penalty of four.

Morgan’s story exemplifies the difficulties in tracking conviction rates, with most trafficking cases not meeting the threshold for a human trafficking conviction.

According to Statistics Canada’s Trafficking in Persons in Canada report for 2019, when examining court decisions by charge, 89 per cent of human trafficking charges were stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged, while only seven per cent of charges resulted in a guilty finding.

“This is a systemic issue where we’re seeing that human trafficking survivors, as well as victims of other forms of sexual-based violence, are not being effectively served by our judicial system,” Drydyk said.

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Data on conviction rates does not include Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. But experts say a lack of data does not mean the issue is any less prevalent. Over 60 per cent of sex trafficking cases in Canada are reported in Ontario.

Read more: Ontario government asks school boards to develop anti-trafficking strategies by 2022

“I know that some people see conviction rates as a means of showing that the system is working, but in reality, if there isn’t enough evidence to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt, then the accused is entitled in our law to an acquittal, which means he’s not convicted,” said Susan Orlando, provincial co-ordinator of Ontario’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Team.

Orlando said when someone is not found guilty of human trafficking, they can still be found guilty for other charges that could carry the same penalty in terms of time served, and that in her experience traffickers are usually found guilty of something.

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Orlando also noted that several factors could lead to a human trafficking charge being dropped, including deciding whether to put a victim through a lengthy court process.

Morgan said she was informed by the Crown prosecutors working on her case early on that the threshold for a human trafficking conviction would be higher than similar charges.

“They weren’t confident that they would be as successful at getting a conviction if we stuck with that,” Morgan said.

Drydyk said court can be very traumatizing for victims in human trafficking cases.

“The way that our Criminal Code is structured in the definition of human trafficking, when human trafficking goes to court, it’s often very reliant on victim testimony,” Drydyk said.

“Those witnesses are then cross-examined, treated like they’re actually guilty themselves, treated like they did it to themselves, that they made their bed and now they need to sleep in it, and that whole system is incredibly traumatizing.”

Read more: ‘I would have been found a long time ago’ — Ontario advocates support for human trafficking bill

Orlando said that is changing, with police working to find other evidence.

“We have been stressing the importance of not relying solely on the complainant’s testimony and also a collaborative approach to our prosecutions and to supporting the complainants throughout the court process,” Orlando said.

She said survivors can access a victim-witness assistance program, they have the option to testify on closed-circuit TV so they do not have to be in the same room as their trafficker, and they can have a support dog with them.

In Morgan’s case, she said her trafficker’s lawyer would walk her trafficker in front of her while they would wait to enter the courtroom and that her support system eventually had to form a wall to block him from her view.

“Everything kept getting adjourned, and I was told by my victim-witness worker from the courts that it’s a tactic that the defence lawyers use to try and deter the victims from continuing, and they just get tired of the constant stress so they give up,” Morgan said.

“It was just that constant cycle of stress building up and then nothing happening and then having to wait for the next date and then going through the cycle all over again.”

‘Victims need to do what’s best for them’

Because of his time already spent in custody prior to his conviction, which counted as time and a half, Morgan’s trafficker was out of jail a few months after being found guilty of procuring sexual services, material benefit from sexual services and advertising sexual services.

“While it was a win that there was a conviction, it doesn’t feel like a win.”

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The harassing messages continued until he was rearrested for a separate incident in 2021.

Her trafficker remains in jail and is now facing additional charges for trafficking another girl in 2019, who London police have reported was also targeted using an online job posting.

But the situation has not left Morgan feeling good about the process.

“It was just very frustrating to go through that entire process, and to go through that stress and the additional trauma that creates, to not even come out remotely close to what I thought might happen going into it,” she said.

“I just felt very blindsided the majority of the time and it was almost easier to not report breaches when they were happening than to report them and be given attitude about it from police officers.”

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Read more: Forced to return to court and testify, N.S. human trafficking survivor feels angry, ‘helpless’

Morgan said it’s important that no survivor feel pressured to come forward, and that people need to have the right supports in place.

Having been trafficked before, she said she never reported that crime to police because it was not feasible to do so given her finances and housing situation at the time.

“I just feel that those life circumstances are something that very much impacts a lot of other victims from coming forward.”

She had a message for survivors.

“I would love to say that everybody should report, it’s not easy and I wish it was, and we need to see change so that it is easier for victims to come forward, but I’m in the mindset that victims need to do what’s best for them, and that doesn’t always go by what society thinks they should do, and that’s OK,” she said.

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“They shouldn’t be made to feel guilty because they didn’t come forward. It’s not their responsibility to stop somebody from trafficking, it’s the responsibility of the person doing the trafficking to not do it in the first place.”

If you are in need of assistance you can contact the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010 to get connected to resources or ask to speak to a lawyer to review your options.

People can also contact the London Abused Women’s Centre at 519-432-2204, Courage for Freedom at 519-615-2292 or the Abused Women’s Helpline at 519-642-3000.