WARNING: This story contains content some readers may find distressing.
At 17 years old, Lynda Harlos’s daughter gave birth to her son after becoming pregnant from a gang rape. Facing trauma, vulnerability and isolation at school, her daughter slipped through the cracks into the world of trafficking.
She told her parents most things, but not all things. Her parents knew about the rape, and the pregnancy. But what they didn’t know was the state of vulnerability it left Samantha in, after she started to get ostracized at school after her friends heard about her pregnancy.
She was going through a lot, but she was still coming home to her close, tight-knit family. Harlos said if she and her husband were more educated on trafficking, she believes her daughter wouldn’t have been a victim.
Now Harlos has made it her mission to spread awareness and education, so it happens to one less person.
Following her sexual assault and the birth of her son, things seemed like they were turning around for the better for Samantha when a boyfriend joined the picture.
“We thought this person was coming into her life, and she was grasping for straws. We knew it wasn’t the right person for her, but you can’t tell kids that…. We were just a family supporting her as best as we could,” said Harlos.
He presented himself as the perfect man, who said exactly what Samantha wanted to hear.
“He was going to be the person who was going to save her from being isolated. As a teenager, as a single mom, as a single teen mom, all of those things are really important to them. And he knew that, and he fed that dream.”
But that dream became a nightmare.
Sydney Marcoux with Victim Services of Durham Region, a non-profit organization that helps those who are victims of violence or tragedies, including trafficking, said it’s a common tactic for perpetrators to act like a hero.
“We refer to them as our Romeo pimps — someone who makes them feel special,” said Marcoux.
Unfortunately, Durham Region, similar to Ottawa and the GTA, is a hotspot for trafficking due to it being along the 401 corridor.
Part of Victim Services of Durham Region is the Sex Trafficking Education Program (STEP), which teaches parents how to spot signs their child is a victim.
Shortly after Samantha’s partner convinced her and her son to move out with him, the trafficking and manipulation started for the 19-year-old.
“One day she came home after being out on a job, and he was standing over her son in the playpen threatening him … because the third-party person was unhappy with Samantha’s performance at her last job. He passed out shortly after, and Samantha called us to come pick her and my grandson up,” Harlos said.
Samantha moved back home and tried to get back on her feet again, but she remained quiet about her relationship with the trafficker. But, Harlos said, for many years, Samantha only blamed herself.
“She had been convinced she said yes to things, and it was all her fault — which wasn’t true. She was manipulated,” said Harlos.
It wasn’t until eight years later, when Samantha was speaking with a police officer and sharing her story, that she found out she had been trafficked. And that’s when she told Harlos and her husband.
“It’s is the worst form of abuse because they’re abusing them mentally, emotionally, sexually, spiritually,” Harlos said.
In many cases, trafficked victims start off feeling safe with those trafficking them. Samantha had met her trafficker at school, and they had mutual friends. She felt like he cared for her, Harlos said.
“He started reaching out to her, saying, ‘I heard about your story, I feel really bad for you, I know you’re having a really hard time. How can I help you? I believe you and I’m so sorry this happened to you,’” said Harlos. “He became her hero in every way.”
Harlos said she believes her lack of knowledge on trafficking in the region is why she partially missed the signs.
“It can be very small things, like missing class, or hanging out in places they historically hadn’t been before,” said Marcoux.
Harlos said she knew nothing about sex trafficking before it happened to her daughter.
“We did not know what sex trafficking was. We didn’t even think it was a problem. To me, it was something that happened in movies…. It was really just a way to hype up a great movie, human trafficking with you. We knew nothing about sex trafficking and what it really looks like, the fact that it’s here in Canada,” said Harlos.
In 2021, 336 human trafficking cases were investigated in Durham Region. According to Durham Regional Crime Stoppers, the human trafficking unit assisted 312 victims, and 111 were under the age of 18 years old. There were 215 individuals charged — a 138 per cent increase in victims compared with 2020.
From April to September of 2022, Project Firebird has reported at least 10 individuals who are facing a total of 32 Criminal Code charges, including obtaining sexual services for consideration from a person under 18 and invitation to sexual touching under the age of 16. The ongoing initiative looks into crimes involving purchasing sex from minors, as well as educating and supporting victims or potential victims.
Victim services is also seeing a climb in referrals.
“This year alone, we have serviced over 350 new referrals for those who have been at risk for trafficking, or who are being trafficked and exploited,” said Marcoux. “From 2018 to 2020, the number of referrals at victim services in Durham Region doubled annually. Since 2018 to today, there has been a 263 per cent increase.”
So far the program has reached 6,000 individuals.
According to Durham regional police, one incident involved a person communicating with an undercover operator over a span of five months and arranging a meeting in Durham Region to purchase sexual services. That individual travelled four hours across the province for the meeting, where they were arrested by police.
Parent With Purpose is Harlos’s online platform, and how she spreads her story and educational messaging on human trafficking. She teaches classes with Victim Services of Durham Region and leads her own seminars to help parents understand what trafficking looks like, how to spot it and how to prevent it. Her website also has a free workshop for parents and she said a couple of hours could save your child.
“I couldn’t protect my daughter because I didn’t know any better,” said Harlos. “I’m not going to let that be anybody else’s excuse.”
Samantha is now 32 and lives a happy life with her family. She’s got big goals and big dreams that she is free to accomplish. But unfortunately, happy endings for trafficked victims are rare.
“There’s not many happy endings, which is why my tagline is prevention is easier than rescue,” said Harlos. “So if a parent really cares about their family, the best thing they can do is educate themselves.”