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Pimps promise young girls lavish gifts, even condos, to lure them into becoming escorts, police say. (Los Angeles Police Department)
Pimps promise young girls lavish gifts, even condos, to lure them into becoming escorts, police say. (Los Angeles Police Department)

Toronto students attend conference on human trafficking Add to ...

She was young, homeless and alone, with a serious drug addiction – an easy target.

The two men made her feel safe. They gave her a place to stay, food and drugs. They gave her a sense of belonging – asked about her hopes and dreams.

But then, an ultimatum, framed as a choice: to pay off her debts, she could either dance or work as an escort. She chose the latter.

“I chose it because I thought I’ll have some kind of control. … But as soon as I agreed to that, everything changed. They took all the control. They took my phone. I didn’t have access to the Internet. And I didn’t have any money or get to keep any money,” said Karly, who was trafficked at the age of 22 and asked that her last name be withheld due to privacy concerns.

“They used their phone to set up dates. They put up my ad. They decided how much money I would charge. They decided what services I would provide. They decided how many people would come to my door each day. I had no control.”

She lived under the constant threat of physical violence and in fear of losing their “affection” – terrified, psychologically trapped. At her lowest point, she figured suicide was her only way out.

But her situation turned around when a police officer knocked on her hotel door. Noticing a number of red flags, he arrested her pimps.

Now 28, Karly works as a peer mentor at East Metro Youth Services. She shared her story with 270 Toronto students this week at a day-long conference to raise awareness of and prevent human trafficking.

Human trafficking is an extreme crime from which victims can take years to recover. The damage can be severe, from malnourishment to sexually transmitted diseases, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Prevention – by recognizing the warning signs and understanding what trafficking is – is crucial.

Last year, Toronto police made 77 human-trafficking arrests, up from 61 the previous year. Police also dealt with 67 victims in 2016, more than double the number of 2015.

Less than three months into 2017, police have already found another 22 victims, said Detective Sergeant Nunzio Tramontozzi, head of the Toronto Police Service’s Sex Crimes-Human Trafficking Enforcement Team, the largest such unit in the country.

Those numbers prompted the conference on human trafficking, the first time Toronto police have held such an event. Attended by students from Grades 7 to 12, it made for straight talk on the nature of consent, the dangers of glorifying “pimp and ho culture,” the abuse and psychological manipulation victims experience – and what healthy relationships look like.

Police say the average age of victims is falling – last year, 61 per cent of them were between the ages of 14 and 17, with the youngest just 13 – and that both the recruitment and advertising of girls is increasingly done online. Traffickers – posing as a boyfriend or friend – reach out on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Kik, Whisper or even the dating app Plenty of Fish. They also might wait at a mall, a bus terminal, outside group homes, youth drop-in centres or near schools. Recruiters may be male or female and are often the same age as their victims.

The conference speakers busted some myths. Human trafficking is not the same as human smuggling; it involves coercion and force. Most cases do not involve foreigners. Perpetrators don’t typically kidnap their victims; it is a relationship-based crime that often involves a stage of luring and grooming. Often, victims believe they are in love with their traffickers. And though most victims forced into the sex trade are girls, boys and transgender kids are also vulnerable.

Police from Toronto, Montreal and Los Angeles gave presentations, along with front-line service providers who work with trafficking victims. The language was raw at times – in keeping with the subject matter.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat things today,” said Toronto Detective Rob Heitzner, citing a study showing that 71 per cent of trafficking victims are local, not brought from other countries. “What we’re saying is the pimps and traffickers are here. And we don’t want you to fall prey.”

There were lessons on slang. The “game” refers to the lifestyle of pimps and prostitution. A “bottom bitch” or “bottom girl” is a pimp’s most trusted girl, who does the recruiting and enforcing of the operation – often to avoid violence. “CREAM,” tattooed on a girl, stands for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.” A picture or emoji of a crown represents pimps, who see themselves as kings of the streets.

“They introduce a game of being glamorous, and they are master manipulators,” said Detective Aaron Korth of the Los Angeles Police Department’s human trafficking unit. They build love and affection and loyalty. Later, “a lot of times they will use rape as a form of punishment. So if she’s out of pocket, and disrespects him, he will force himself on her.”

The presentations were graphic: pictures of girls beaten by their pimps; the tattoos they’re forced to get as brands; chilling audio clips from wiretaps of pimps issuing threats; an escort ad featuring a girl in lingerie, looking half-starved, posted on the website Backpage.

Images of U.S. rapper Snoop Dogg with two women in collars and chains were introduced to show how popular culture glorifies pimps. “Is this a good message?” Det. Heitzner asked. Kids shook their heads. “I agree with you – it isn’t a good message.”

Front-line service providers are now offering a range of co-ordinated services to victims. On Yonge Street, the Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre provides counselling and advocacy and helps victims navigate the court system. There are medical services on site, as well as trained police who can take victims’ statements in a quiet room.

The centre has had 27 referrals of trafficking cases in the past two years. The youngest victim was 12.

Julie Moore, a youth advocate in the centre’s human trafficking program, estimates that about half her cases are gang-related.

“It’s very profitable,” she said. “With drugs, you sell them once and then it’s gone. But with the girls you really can keep selling them over and over and over. So it really is a profitable business, if you will, for these guys.”

Back at the trafficking conference, the young audience was attentive, and many of them took notes. “You see this stuff in movies, but you don’t realize the reality of it,” said one teen while on lunch break.

They learned about the warning signs that a peer may be a trafficking victim: changes in behaviour, new phones or clothes, a secret boyfriend, losing touch with family and friends, weight loss.

Know your vulnerabilities, they were told, and don’t let someone else use them against you. Real love doesn’t mean a person can ask you to do things you find uncomfortable. Be leery of promises of lavish gifts. “If anybody offers you a condo – it’s bullshit,” said Toronto Detective David Correa.

The most powerful moment was when Karly spoke of her experience. She asked the audience if they had any questions. At first, there were none. And then, hand after hand went up, followed by insightful, intelligent queries: When you first met these guys, did you have any suspicions about them? What was your lowest point? Do you have advice for youth who are alone and struggling?

One girl asked: How do you have the courage to share your story with hundreds of people?

“It’s hard, and some days are harder than others,” Karly replied. “But if my story can help one person, or stop this from happening to one person, it’s worth it.”

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