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

Journey to Justice graphic .

Survivors of human trafficking can feel apprehensive about the justice system as a whole, with so much of their autonomy being taken from them, first by the trafficker and then by the reporting process.

WARNING: This article contains details some may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.

This is the third and final part of our Journey to Justice series, which explores programs emphasizing the importance of empowering survivors to be in control of their path forward, whether they choose to go through the court system or not.

When a survivor reports their abuse to the police it sets off a chain reaction and process that they no longer control. It is the beginning of a process that will take several years with police and Crown attorneys in the driver’s seat. Experts say when you factor in the low conviction rates, it can leave many questioning if it’s even worth it in the first place.

Calls have been growing to centre survivors’ voices and one program aims to do just that, regardless of whether they choose to pursue charges.

In 2018, through its Victims and Vulnerable Persons Division, the Ministry of the Attorney General in Ontario launched a new program providing free legal support to human trafficking victims.  The program is delivered through the Office of the Children’s Lawyer.

“It started off as a pilot program where the initiative was let’s give these victims and survivors access to their own lawyer to canvass their legal options, to get legal advice, to get independent legal advice,” said Kelly Beal, the lawyer who runs the program.

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

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The program provides legal support to all victims of trafficking, regardless of race, age or gender, and was made permanent in response to one of the Calls for Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: that all victims have quick access to immediate protection orders.

Beal, a former Crown attorney, has been the sole legal support running the program since it started in 2018. A Crown attorney for over 20 years, Beal officially resigned from her role with the Crown after the program was made permanent in 2021.

“I am so much more impactful in these girls’ lives in this role than I ever was (as a crown attorney), this is what I believe prosecuting cases because I have so much flexibility and my role,” Beal said.

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“I was very limited. We can’t talk about the evidence, we’re going to have to meet in the presence of an officer, we have to meet within the presence of a victim-witness officer. Those were the confinements of my role.”

Now, instead of an office, Beal meets survivors wherever they need to be — at a support agency, a hospital, a coffee shop or even her car.

Most restraining orders are for one year, and before a complainant can get one against another person, the accused is notified by the court and has the opportunity to defend it. The issue Beal said is that this provides traffickers with the opportunity to intimidate the victim before an order comes into effect.

In 2017, the Ontario government enacted  the Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking Act,  which allows victims of human trafficking to apply for restraining orders without notifying their trafficker before it is in place if they are in immediate or imminent danger.

“These restraining orders I get immediately within 24 to 48 hours — depending on where the victim is at, it might take a little longer — and what’s also really important with these restraining orders is that I can get them without notice to the trafficker, which means the trafficker doesn’t even know that the victim is working with a lawyer.”

For Beal, the ability to get victims immediate protection without informing their former or current trafficker is crucial.

“I’m working with the girl behind the scenes without the trafficker knowing.”

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“If the trafficker knew that their victim, who could not walk away from the situation on their own, was working with a lawyer, they are really putting themselves in serious danger. If it was easy, if these victims could just walk away from the trafficking situation they’re in, they would, but they can’t,” she said.

While other provinces might provide victims with similar protection, Beal noted Ontario’s strategy is unique in the way that it gives victims the support they need to navigate the process.

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

“Just two weeks ago, I got a call from the police in Montreal. They said, ‘There’s a lot of girls who won’t engage with us, they need protection, can you work them?’ I can’t. It’s Ontario legislation and I cover Ontario only.”

Despite the program being linked to the Office of the Attorney General, Beal is not required to disclose any information she receives from victims to the police or the court system without the victim’s consent, giving them more autonomy on how they move forward.

“All of my clients control the situation, and they might ask me to do one thing one day and the next day they want to do something different and then we switch gears. It’s all up to them. All I am is a person who informs them of what their options are,” Beal said.

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Sometimes Beal notes it can take months to even a year before a victim is ready to file a restraining order or formally report what happened to them.

The restraining order not only grants survivors protection without having to go through the reporting process, but it also flags that person to law enforcement and lays the groundwork should the survivor choose to report in the future.

“There’s this whole population out there who hate the police, who will not go to the police under any circumstances, and I knew people dislike the police, but I didn’t realize how many people did, and I didn’t realize how many people were scared and now that’s the population that I work with,” Beal said.

The London Abused Women’s Centre, Courage for Freedom and the Native Women’s Association of Canada all told Global News fewer than half of the survivors of sex trafficking they work with choose to report their abuse to police.

Beal makes it clear that she never discourages survivors from going to the police, noting that she works in collaboration with law enforcement to help survivors and helps teach officers at the Ontario Police College about trafficking.

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“If a victim wants to go to the police, I will bridge that relationship. If the police have a victim or a girl who really needs protection and the girl won’t work with them, they will refer clients to me,” she said.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the human trafficking officers I interact with want to make those arrests and want any tool that they can, whether it’s a human trafficking restraining order in place to be able to get further in terms of ending human trafficking.”

Beal’s role goes beyond the confines of a regular nine-to-five job, being on call 24/7 accepting calls from victims seeking legal advice at various stages of their journey, no matter the time or place.

“It would be great if this program is going to expand with other lawyers doing this role, and at some point, I anticipate it will be, but the biggest hurdle was making this program permanent,” Beal said.

Read more: More victims identified in multi-force sex trafficking probe, London police say

Survivor-focused organizations like the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC) are starting similar Initiatives to help survivors determine what justice means for them.

“It’s very important to meet women where they’re at. So, if a woman is not wanting to report, is not wanting to go to court, or maybe they do, and then they decide that they don’t, whatever it means for them,” said Jennifer Dunn, executive director of LAWC.

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Dunn said LAWC’s Journey to Justice Program started in 2021 and is funded through the federal government’s Women and Gender Equality Canada department for the next two years. It is focused on hearing what survivors need to move forward. The program also has a survivor-led advisory group helping provide feedback.

“It’s a group of women who want to advise us on what we should be doing, and their experiences, and best practices from their voice,” Dunn said.

“We have always made it a priority to listen to survivors’ voices and always made sure to have women’s voices involved in all of our programming, but this needs to happen everywhere because the women that have the lived experience know best what’s going on the ground.”

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

The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) is taking a more holistic approach to supporting survivors.

The association has set up a helpline for Indigenous women and girls to be able to call to get spiritual support from grandmothers.

The NWAC Resiliency Lodge Support Services has three number for grandmothers people can reach Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. toll-free: 888-664-7808, 833-652-1381 and 833-652-1328.

“There is a direct correlation with how Mother Earth and Indigenous women are treated. This is because here on Turtle Island, Indigenous women have a spiritual connection to Mother Earth that is sacred,” said Bethany Tremblay, interim administrator, Wabanaki Resiliency Lodge NWAC.

“One thing that is common on their journey to healing is it all stems from trauma, and the healing begins with safe connections where they feel seen. Indigenous people, especially our youth, struggle to feel safe and seen due to the history of Canada and most of the current systems in place.”

For Taylor, re-connecting with her culture has been a key part of her healing journey.

Global News has changed Taylor’s name to protect her privacy.

“I don’t think the trauma ever really goes away, especially because I was sexually abused as a child,” Taylor said.

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“It doesn’t really go away, but it’s kind of learning how to calm the nervous system, because it’s kind of recreating your nervous system to understand you’re in a safe place now, and it’s an active, ongoing process.”

As an Indigenous woman, Taylor said she was “exposed to a lot of high sexual violence as a young child.”

“When it comes down to this whole binary understanding of multiculturalism, which creates this whiteness and then other, and then when you’re in the other section, there’s a hierarchy of otherness, and Indigenous women are at the bottom.”

Without a proper support system in place due to intergenerational trauma, she felt “outcast” growing up in Toronto, making her vulnerable to the sex trade.

“I was targeted because I didn’t have a solid family foundation, and you need a solid family foundation to be protected in society.”

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She was 17 when she was trafficked for about a year.

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“He would take me to hotels, raped me in public, he would rape me in these hotels, motels, beat me, and then he would have people sit outside my home at all hours of the day making sure I wouldn’t get away,” Taylor explained.

When she managed to get away from her trafficker, Taylor tells Global News going to the police and reporting her abuser to the justice system was not an option.

“It would be the police that you would go to for help, but (police) are saying you need to act right as an Indigenous woman in a society, it’s your fault,” she said.

“The times that I have gone to the police for help I’ve had my own violent interactions with them and because of that I don’t feel safe and I have never have till this day.”

With a distrust in the justice system, Taylor said she looked at reconnecting to her culture to heal.

Read more: Family tells MMIWG hearings that police act differently to ‘white-passing’ appearance

“I will read articles, books, whatever I can get my hands on, basically, and I spend a lot of time alone. I try to understand my reconnection to my traditions, and try to go to sweat, I try to be in ceremony as much as I can,” Taylor explained.

“I felt ashamed of it at first, and I feel really nervous, but when I sat in the sweat lodge for the first time, I just bawled and I cried and I let it all out because, without that feeling of community and connection, you kind of lose the sense of self. All those things that were taken away from me for years when I came back to the community and came back to tradition and I came back to ceremony, I felt reconnected to me.”

Although she said the trauma never really goes away, she said being able to reconnect with her culture and also share her story with other survivors has helped her cope.

Looking at solutions, she said it needs to be Indigenous women leading the conversation.

“I think we also need to let Indigenous women do the work, even though it is hard for us and it’s difficult for us. I feel like we need to have our voices heard. We need to connect with one another and let you know that we need the funding to do it.”

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Later this year she said she is going to be taking part in one of NWAC’s Resiliency Lodges.

NWAC has Resiliency Lodges dedicated to helping survivors heal from their trauma, one of which is in Chelsea, Que., and the second is set to open in New Brunswick.

“Our Resiliency Lodges are equipped with grandmothers, their elders who provide that spiritual support and make those connections and really get them back to connecting our heads and our hearts,” Tremblay said.

Tremblay said over time they hope to have lodges spread out across Canada.

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.