Ron Kapuscinski, a sergeant with the Durham Regional Police, often faced the same plea from parents: "Many, many times, I was sitting in lobbies and talking to parents at 2 in the morning and they'd say 'My daughter had absolutely no idea this was a thing. Why are you not doing anything? Why are not you not educating young girls to tell them this could happen to them?'"
The topic in question was human sex trafficking, and Sgt. Kapuscinski stumbled for answers. That is, until recently.
This academic year, Sgt. Kapuscinski partnered with local school districts in his area, east of Toronto, to run sessions for high school girls to make them aware of what domestic sex trafficking involves. "It happened too many times," he said, "that parents were asking me why we were not doing anything."
In Canada, the vast majority of the more than 400 cases since 2005 where human-trafficking charges were laid were domestic and primarily sexual exploitation (only a handful were international and for forced labour), according to the RCMP's human trafficking national co-ordination centre. Experts say that helping girls, who are among the most vulnerable, recognize the warning signs is crucial. Girls often believe they are in love with their traffickers, who have developed relationships by luring and grooming girls.
In the Durham region, police run presentations for Grade 9 girls in gym classes. Gym is mandatory in that grade and the topic of healthy relationships is part of the curriculum. Police and school staff believed it was the ideal way to run sessions for young girls about human trafficking, without having to pull them out of other classes.
Dan Hogan, substance abuse and violence prevention co-ordinator at the Durham District School Board, said the sessions have been popular among schools.
"We know that the [Highway] 401 corridor is a corridor that is utilized for human trafficking. We want to make sure that our youth have the information to keep themselves safe," Mr. Hogan said. "And it's a substantial enough problem that it warrants at least some contact about it."
Antonela Arhin, who teaches courses about human trafficking at the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto, commended the Durham region for speaking to students about this issue.
"It is crucial for students to learn about human trafficking. Prevention efforts, however, need to start earlier than in Grade 9 since that is the age at which girls are already being identified as victims/survivors of human trafficking," she said.
She also raised the issue of why boys are not included in the conversation, saying involving them is "logical and necessary."
This concern was echoed by parent Suareen De Mel, who lives in Whitby. A police officer spoke to her daughter's Grade 9 gym class late last year on the issue of human sex trafficking.
"I think it's good to make them aware, but it's just for girls only," Ms. De Mel said. "They should educate everybody on that subject, even the boys, because they all go to school together. They are friends. So if the boys see some clues they should be able to help [the girls] out of it."
Durham police and school staff said that while they would like to run sessions for boys, they received a limited amount of grant money to design and conduct these presentations.
Mr. Hogan said he had one parent approach him to say boys should be part of the presentation. He said he doesn't doubt it would be valuable to boys but added that having male students sit in on the current sessions would be a disservice to females.
"Giving the presentation to a mixed group would create some other issues where it doesn't allow the girls to talk openly with each other," he said. "The presentation would have to be revamped and changed to be appropriate for Grade 9 boys, because there are some maturity issues there as well. It's a pretty sensitive topic and Grade 9 boys may not be ready for it. Grade 9 girls are."
He added: "The main group that's most vulnerable to this are the females, so we're [providing sessions to] that group at this point."
Veena Wadu, a Grade 9 student at Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby, said she was grateful to listen to the presentation. She and her friends spoke about it more after the session, she said.
"It made me think twice about a lot of stuff," she said. "I really didn't think about how it could happen or where it could happen. It's good that they're doing the presentation because it happens usually in the teenage years."