Vulnerable kids can become easy prey for predators
You’ve seen her. Standing apart from the crowd in the school yard or shopping mall or rushing home with that one special friend. Or maybe she was hunched over her smart phone at the bus stop or the edge of a parking lot. Shy. Self-conscious. Too brainy or awkward to fit in with the cool kids, trying her best not to be noticed. If you don’t know her personally, you likely know someone who does. She’s a regular teenager from a regular town trying to make it through the often gruelling social gauntlet of modern adolescence.
What you probably don’t know is that that teen may be the victim of a heinous crime. It’s called human sex trafficking, the exploitation of victims for the purposes of prostitution and pornography through force, fraud or coercion. The prevalence of this trafficking, even in Watershed country, is shocking: In 2021, a team of sexual-predator profilers found 2,051 online ads in Belleville promoting prostitution (most with coerced victims) within a mere three-month window.
Despite widespread misconceptions sparked by TV dramas and Netflix, the majority of trafficking victims don’t hail from distant impoverished nations or inner city neighbourhoods. They’re your neighbours, your children’s classmates, that lonely looking teenager you pass in the aisle of the supermarket.
The average victim, according to many experts, is 13 years old.
LISA’S* STORY OFFERS A HARROWING GLIMPSE into the trafficking victim experience. As her mother Susan* recounts, Lisa was a straight-A student in a local high school before she was lured into trafficking at age 16. “She was very determined to do something with her life,” says Susan. “She’s a December baby, so she was a little young for her grade, a little shy.”
Shortly after Lisa turned 17, Susan began noticing differences in her daughter: “There were major changes in the way she dressed and the way she treated me. She was anxious and seemed to be going out every night of the week.” Lisa also ended most of her old friendships and replaced them with friends who picked her up in cars at the end of the street. The school started to report absenteeism; lingerie went missing from Susan’s dresser.
Susan knew her daughter was in trouble, but she never suspected trafficking. “I thought she was starting to drink and hang out with a different crowd, but I thought of trafficking as a Third World problem, where people get imported here for sex labour,” says Susan, adding, “the eyes can’t see what the mind doesn’t know.”
Then one morning, Susan saw Lisa waiting to be picked up in an LCBO parking lot near her school. “She looked really spaced out and scared. I asked her what was wrong and she said she was waiting for a friend, but I could tell she was in crisis,” says Susan. “I tried to get her in my car but she yelled at me and ran away.”
Later that day, Lisa returned home in a paranoid, manic state. “She started looking out the windows telling me that there were people out there in the woods wearing hoodies watching her.” When her mother left the room, Lisa ran out into the fields surrounding the family farm. By the time Susan got her to the hospital that evening, Lisa was in a psychotic state. Doctors discovered evidence of physical abuse, malnutrition and drug use, including five or six types of drugs in Lisa’s system.
Shortly after, Susan coaxed Lisa’s cell phone passwords from her and made a horrifying discovery: At the tender age of 16, her daughter had been lured into trafficking by an older man posing as her boyfriend. The man had groomed Lisa by showering her with gifts and attention, before he began physically abusing her and coercing her to have sex first with his friends and eventually, with strangers.
Lisa will never get those two years back, but as far as trafficking outcomes go, she was lucky: With the support of her mother, she went to the police and eventually secured a conviction against her trafficker.
SADLY, LISA’S ENTRY INTO TRAFFICKING IS TYPICAL, says Marissa Kokkoros, the founder and executive director of Aura Freedom International. “It starts with the trafficker targeting someone by looking for a crack in the surface of that person’s life.” That crack might be the victim’s position in a racialized or otherwise marginalized community, or a youth struggling with poverty, family divorce, parental addiction or mental illness.
Inspector Katie Andrews of the Port Hope Police agrees: “Many trafficking victims suffer from depression, hostility, stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, fear of authority… They may be chronic runaway/homeless youth, or perhaps the youth is bullied or has no self-worth.” Katarina MacLeod, the Founder and Executive Director of Rising Angels Awareness & Restorative Care (and a trafficking survivor), says that more than 80 percent of the victims she’s worked with have experienced some form of prior sexual abuse.
Sometimes the crack is merely a fissure: a shy girl like Lisa who yearns to fit in but doesn’t. Kristin Szabo is an office administrator for Daughter Project Canada, a non-profit that provides anti-sex trafficking resources and helps young people at risk of sexual exploitation. Citing a wealth of research, Szabo says that “low self-worth and low self-esteem are huge contributors to vulnerability. Young women of every socio-economic status fall victim to traffickers. Research also shows that young boys and girls have the same feelings of self-worth until around age 9 to 10, when the girls take a nosedive.” Statistics show that between 90 and 97 percent of trafficking victims are girls and women.
SINCE TRAFFICKING IS MORE PREVALENT along the transportation corridors that connect larger towns and cities, it’s no surprise that Highway 401, the busiest highway in North America, remains a prime hub for pimps and purchasers of sex. A 2021 study conducted by the Centre to End Human Trafficking confirmed what experts have known for some time: the 401 is the major artery for sex trafficking in Ontario. Using social media apps and online ads, pimps set up meetings for purchasers of sex at hotels, motels and even private residences within a short drive of the 401. After a few hours, or days, of servicing customers, the victim is moved to the next stop along the highway.
Given the proximity of the counties along the 401 corridor, it’s no surprise that our region is a major hub in the sex trafficking industry. Elise Hineman, Executive Director at The Sexual Assault Centre for Quinte and District, confirms that Belleville especially is a trafficking focal point.
“Belleville is identified by police services and by other agencies as a stopover for sex traffickers, particularly when they need to get out of Toronto or Montreal because the police are on to them.”
Inspector Andrews of the Port Hope Police points out the area traversed by the 401 – the Windsor- Michigan border connects two nations and two provinces, making it an ideal corridor for national and international smuggling and trafficking rings. The highway “offers easy access to hotels and motels,” says Andrews. “The trafficker [and the purchaser] can come in off the 401 and be gone to the next town or city very quickly.” The sheer volume of traffic also confers near-anonymity to users of the 401.
Agata Czajkowski, Strategic Communications Officer with the Ontario Provincial Police, points out that traffickers are “not likely to travel the back roads. Taking a longer route from one city to another reduces their earning potential for the day. Additionally, traffickers will move their victims to further isolate them from family or loved ones while evading law enforcement.”
Police are hard-pressed to stanch the flow of pimps, buyers and victims that pass through the 401 corridor every day of every year. Traffickers and their clients are technically savvy, using the latest communication apps to evade detection, and they are highly mobile. Victims are often forced to service their clients in vehicles in rest stops or any of the many parking lots a short drive from the 401. For victims caught in this downward cycle of abuse and drug addiction, once-familiar towns like Cobourg, Port Hope and Belleville become blurred names on a passing road sign.
“In a culture that has normalized pimp behaviour, kids don’t always recognize the criminal element behind those postures.” KATARINA MACLEOD
SO HOW DOES IT HAPPEN? How do predators lure vulnerable teenagers like Lisa into sexual slavery? Maureen Pollard, a social worker who specializes in supporting people recovering from grief and trauma, points out that there are not necessarily more pimps preying on young people today. “But predators do have better access to children than ever before,” she clarifies. That access, Pollard says, is often gained through the ubiquitous smart phones and laptops that now define adolescent life.
Because parents and their children are often unaware of the proximity of online predators, they don’t take the necessary precautions. “It’s a normal part of adolescence for kids to try out new identities,” Pollard explains. “They need to explore those identities outside the confines of their families. But they don’t know who they’re interacting with online and they don’t understand their intentions.” These new so-called friendships can be the first step in the sexual trafficking process, a way for pimps to gather important information about the victim that can be used later.
Katarina MacLeod points out that this information- gathering can happen without the trafficker and victim ever meeting in person. “These guys can find out everything about your kids,” she says. “It’s all up there on Facebook and Instagram and Tik-Tok: what the girl likes, what she doesn’t like, who her mom and dad are, who she’s angry at, where she’s hurting.” The trafficker often coaxes the girl into sharing sexually explicit photos that can be used for future blackmail.
Once the trafficker has gained the victim’s trust, he often bombards her with love, affection and gifts. “The pimp plays the Romeo,” explains MacLeod. “He’s taking her out, buying her things, making her feel beautiful. But while he’s giving her all this attention, he’s also isolating her from her family and friends.” Eventually, MacLeod says, the girl moves in with him. “Then he introduces her to porn to desensitize her to sex and then he’ll say, ‘We can have the perfect family and the white-picket fence faster if you would only turn some tricks for me.’ And because he’s okay with it, she’ll think it’s okay, and because she really wants to have a family with his guy, she’ll do it.”
Another typical ploy sees the trafficker pressuring the girl into prostitution after claiming he’s spent all his money on her. He may also claim it’s the girl’s fault that he’s deep in debt to loan sharks who will kill him if he doesn’t repay them. Then, says Marissa Kokkoros, there’s added insurance: “The trafficker will find out things like where the victim’s little brother and sister play after school – information that can be used against her in the form of a threat of violence.”
POLITICIANS, POLICE FORCES AND SOCIAL AGENCIES at every level have been active in combating human sexual trafficking. Awareness campaigns have targeted schools, social agencies, youth centres and even the rest stops along the 401 corridor, and the Ontario government has pledged $307 million to help combat the crime and offer services to victims. In 2021, the provincial government approved Bill 251, the Combating Human Trafficking Act, the latest addition to the province’s Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy. The bill gives new tools to police forces fight – ing trafficking and helps child-protection agencies intervene in suspected cases of sexual exploitation.
Sex trafficking remains a difficult crime to control and prosecute. Sergeant Ariane Corey of the RCMP’s National Human Trafficking Section calls human trafficking “a high-reward/low-risk crime. Police investigations can be lengthy and labour intensive. Given the sheer level of psychological control and even physical abuse, it is very difficult for victims to come forward to law enforcement. Moreover, seeking justice through the justice system can be re-traumatizing for many victims or survivors.”
Victims also have to face the shame and guilt associated with prostitution. Corey says, “There are still many misconceptions about how young women are lured and coerced into the sex industry – by police officers but also by the general public. Simply using the word prostitution has a connotation of ‘free will’ and ‘choice,’ when the reality is that trafficking victims are not provided a choice at all.”
WITH ODDS STACKED against detection and prosecution and with the human costs so high, it’s no surprise that everyone Watershed spoke to urged parents and community members to be vigilant in working to prevent and report the crime. That begins with learning to spot the signs of possible involvement with trafficking.
Sex trafficking remains a difficult crime to control and prosecute.
Those signs include school absences, conflicts with teachers and students, withdrawal from social activities, a sudden change in friends, drug and/or alcohol use, radical change in attire (such as new expensive clothing), different hairstyles, new tattoos, and multiple phones with blocked numbers and stored taxi numbers and ride-sharing apps. Other signs include changes in mood and attitude, such as avoiding eye contact, extreme mood swings, and signs of anxiety, depression and paranoia, especially in relation to police or other authority figures. There may also be signs of malnourishment and physical abuse, such as cigarette burns and bruises.
Awareness about sexual trafficking is not enough; social worker Maureen Pollard insists that parents need to know what their children are doing online before the abuse starts. “You need to educate yourself about the digital technologies your children use. Make it clear to your kids that if you’re going to pay for their phones then you are going to have access to them. It’s not like reading your child’s diary because what your kid writes in their diary is not going to get them killed or sex trafficked.”
Pollard recommends that parents impose limits on technology usage until their children have proven themselves capable of safely using their internet access. “You have to be able to negotiate your child’s technology in a way that doesn’t automatically degenerate into a power struggle that forces you to bring down the hammer to get what you want. Another trusted adult can help – a trusted relation, friend or teacher.” She also suggests that parents confine all internet use to family spaces, but if children are allowed to access the internet in their bedrooms, to restrict access after bedtime.
Karen Watson, a guidance counsellor and special ed teacher at Port Hope High School, confirms that, for all of their familiarity with smart phones and apps, teenagers are not equipped to negotiate the dangers and stresses of online socializing. “They feel safer behind the screen,” she says, “but they can be taken advantage of because they never know who is on the other end.” The students she counsels report that social media tends to make people “more mean” because they say things online that they wouldn’t say in person. The nature of digital technology also accelerates and amplifies these online dramas. The fallout tends to hit isolated and awkward teens harder than those lucky enough to be numbered among the in-crowd, making them even more susceptible to the flattery and false promises of pimps and other sexual predators.
Katarina MacLeod also points to a broader culture that desensitizes young people to sexual exploitation. “We’ve normalized sending videos or photos of yourself naked, and the average child has started watching porn by age nine… Most of that pornography is about a woman being dominated, so a little boy thinks this is what he’s supposed to do, and a little girl watching thinks this is what she’s supposed to allow.” Many video games and music artists have normalized what MacLeod calls “pimp culture, and kids don’t always recognize the criminal element behind those postures.”
This makes it even more important for parents, teachers and community leaders to help educate young people about the signs and horrors of human trafficking. For every case like Lisa’s, where a victim is lucky enough to be reunited with her family, there are dozens – even hundreds – of girls and women who don’t get out. They are out there now, trafficked along the 401 corridor and through the streets of our beloved towns and communities. They may even be in the car next to yours.
Names in the article have been changed. Watershed would like to thank our actor Jasmine Wilson for her participation in the production of this article.