Heeding red flags to combat human trafficking

A suspected victim of human trafficking is seen in this illustration photo. (Catholic News Service photo by Jackson Njehia, Reuters)

By Wendy-Ann Clarke, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – When Sr. Nancy Brown, SC, began serving as pastoral counsellor at Covenant House Vancouver in 1998, her eyes were opened to the sex-trafficking crisis happening right under the nose of everyday Canadians.

Involved in legal advocacy work today, she says to end this scourge, people need to become more aware of the signs.

Working with vulnerable youth, Brown has met many who had been lured into the sex trade. She tells the story of one young woman in particular whose family had sold her into pornography when she was a child, later prostitution and sex trafficking across Canada and the U.S. The woman, Jessa Dillow Crisp, ended up at Covenant House. A chance encounter with an alert stranger at a hotel in the U.S. provided the path that would lead to her escape.

“A woman in the hotel noticed her and obviously was very knowledgeable of trafficking and recognized some of the signs and slipped her a piece of paper with a phone number and said, ‘If you need help call me,’ ” said Brown, who earned the Order of British Columbia for her work with young people at risk for trafficking and sexploitation.

“That girl took the piece of paper, hid it in her shoe, went back to Toronto and a couple of months later made the phone call. This woman happened to be in charge of a shelter in the United States and got this girl out of Toronto into this shelter. Today (Dillow Crisp) is now working on her PhD and started an agency to help trafficked persons and is doing marvellous work.”

Dillow Crisp’s story is not typical. According to the recent documentary Surviving Sex Trafficking, just one per cent of those victimized escape. Worse, many parents, teachers and community members have no idea children around them could be at risk.

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Being able to identify red flags may empower people in the public to alert authorities or identify when youth in their circle are vulnerable. Working in a shelter, the woman who helped Dillow Crisp escape her life of in the sex trade was likely at heightened awareness for warning signs.

“She probably noticed some nervousness, and some awkwardness,” said Brown. “It was in a hotel so she might have noticed her with different men and picked up on the uncomfortableness. She probably noticed the man was controlling.”

Most of the luring takes place via the Internet with the vast majority of victims being female. Statistics Canada numbers reveal 96 per cent of victims are women and girls, while more than 80 per cent of traffickers are young men.

Julie Neubauer, manager of anti-human trafficking services at Covenant House Toronto, says while there are many scenarios where women and girls are lured into trafficking, the “Romeo boyfriend” hook remains predominant. As people who are isolated look to reach out and connect, traffickers prey on their vulnerabilities. Recognizing the signs of insecurity in young women, they are able to develop a trauma-bonded relationship — emotional bonds that form from a recurring pattern of abuse perpetuated by intermittent reinforcement through rewards and punishments. Once this toxic connection has been built, the women are coerced by the “boyfriends” into the sex trade.

“The (victim) feels like they are walking on eggshells at risk of jeopardizing the relationship and would do anything to keep that individual happy,” said Neubauer. “That’s a tactic the traffickers are using to keep them emotionally fragile and then will reward (the girls) by taking them shopping, being intimate with them physically or praising them. They do this over and over to instill and develop the psychological trauma bond. It makes it difficult if the (victim) is able to leave at some point in the future to go to the police and give testimony against (the perpetrator) because (the victim) feels they are betraying that individual.”

With funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services, Covenant House Toronto has added an enhancing outcomes program to serve young people between the ages of 14 and 17 to address prevention. The idea is to work with those at risk of trafficking and sexploitation before they become entrenched.

A trauma therapist as well as a support worker works with these young people and their families. The program, Neubauer says, has been very effective.

Brown currently sits on several sex-trafficking advocacy committees including the Canadian Council of Churches’ committee on sexual exploitation, the Vancouver Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation and the Archdiocese of Vancouver anti-human trafficking committee. The exiting process from the world of trafficking is very difficult because of the manipulative techniques that traffickers use.

It takes at least six attempts for a woman to leave a trafficking situation and when she does, having a safe and supportive place to go is essential, says Brown. The road to recovery does come with an intense amount of healing and personal empowerment, but it is possible.

“The way out is building that self-confidence, building that self-esteem,” said Brown.