Victim Services seek to proof kids against trafficking

Victim Services

MANITOULIN – Living in a rural community can be tranquil. It is wonderfully peaceful to be able to raise a family far from the hubbub and stress of big city life, but that largely peaceful existence can sometimes lead to a dangerous complacency—nowhere is truly safe from the dangers of human trafficking.

Manitoulin-North Shore Victim Services (MNSVS) held an online workshop on how to proof your children against human trafficking  and some of the statistics they provided are truly alarming. It is never too early to start arming your children against the wiles of traffickers.

“MNSVS is currently working with five victims of human trafficking,” revealed Victim Support Specialist Jessica Summers during her opening presentation, although she noted none of the five had been trafficked on Manitoulin Island.

Human trafficking is defined as “recruiting, transporting, transferring, receiving, holding, concealing or harbouring a person, or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person, for the purpose of exploiting them or facilitating their exploitation.”

Ms. Summers broke that definition down further, saying that it involves the use of force or coercion to obtain some type of labour or commercial sex act.” She noted that, “it can happen in any community and victims can be of any age, race, gender or nationality.” The average age of a trafficking victim is 13. “Traffickers might use violence, manipulation or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations,” continued Ms. Summers.

“Anyone can be at risk,” she said, “but there are risk factors that can make someone more vulnerable.” Those risk factors of being sex trafficked include women and girls (although boys and men who are LGBTQI2S  are also targeted); homeless and marginalized youth; youth struggling with self-esteem, from bullying, discrimination, poverty, abuse, isolation and other social or family issues (although as the keynote speaker later pointed out, even apparently well-adjusted middle class youth can be vulnerable); Indigenous women and girls; and people with addictions, mental illness and developmental disabilities.

If your children do not fall into any of these categories, do not be complacent. Ms. Summers pointed out that there are cases where none of these risk factors are present. “Traffickers often target very young people, identify their needs and then use their dependence to control and exploit them.”

Not all vulnerabilities are equal either. Ms. Summers noted that Indigenous women are at higher risk of human trafficking. “Indigenous women make up four percent of the Canadian population,” she said. “Yet they make up roughly 50 percent of trafficked victims, according to a 2016 study.”

Factors behind this startling statistic can be traced to the ongoing impacts of colonialism and discrimination, as well as intergenerational violence and trauma stemming from the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop and the impact of child welfare institutions, offered Ms. Summers.

Many Indigenous women and girls have experienced unstable living conditions, poverty, a lack of social services, family issues, identity issues and a general lack of opportunities, she noted. “This creates more vulnerable people who could be at risk of human trafficking.” The ongoing travesty of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls being a case in point, she noted.

There are a number of “red flags” that can serve as a warning that someone may be a victim. Ms. Summers listed some of those red flags for which parents and other caregivers need to be on alert: Do they have freedom of movement? Are they not in control of their identification, bank card or money? Are they working long hours, exhausted or hungry? Is there a new (possibly abusive) boyfriend? Are there visible signs of abuse or malnourishment? Do they have bruises at various stages of healing? Do they know their address? Are they living in hotels? Are they carrying their ‘life’ in one bag or purse? Are they showing signs of mental abuse? Is there fear, anxiety, trauma, or resistance to speaking with support workers or police? Do they avoid eye contact or social interactions? Is their hair, nails, makeup being done constantly and not consistent with how they did it before? And has there been a sudden or drastic change in their behaviour?

There are patterns to the stages that traffickers use in capturing their victims. Those include luring (assessing the victim, collecting information about them and making the victim feel special), grooming and assisting (a honeymoon stage, the victim thinks they are in love with the trafficker and the trafficker’s promises make the victim think their dreams are coming true, this may include new clothes, cars, housing and such, and the victim may begin illicit drug use), then comes coercion and manipulation (lots of mixed messages such as putting the victim down and then praising them to the skies, then withdrawing their affections and sex acts where compliance is rewarded), exploitation follows (those can include threats to the safety of loved ones, the victim may be in debt to their trafficker, financial pressures, confinement and isolation along with emotional and physical abuse); finally comes the recruitment stage where the victim is so captured by her trafficker that the victim is set to teaching other victims, recruiting victims (which makes the victim feel powerful), a reduction in the number of clients they must serve and generally making the victim believe they have regained control over their lives.

Common channels for recruitment include: airports, community members, family members, friends, hitchhiking, significant others, social media and the internet, school, shelters and stores or restaurants. It isn’t all just stranger danger.

Ms. Summers advises those being approached that, “if something seems too good to be true, it likely is, even if it is someone you know—be aware and trust your instincts.”

The victim support specialist explained the concept of a “trauma bond,” wherein the trafficker imposes alternating periods of love and affection with devaluation and physical and/or emotional abuse. “A person may develop a trauma bond because they rely on the abusive person to fulfill emotional needs,” said Ms. Summers. “After causing harm, an abusive person may promise to change, be especially kind or romantic to make up for their behaviour. This gives the abused person hope that their suffering will end and they will one day receive the love or connection that has been promised.”

Even when they do escape their traffickers, there is still an 85 percent chance the victim will return to their trafficker,” shared Ms. Summers. It can take many attempts before a victim finally breaks free for good.

Among the local statistics provided during the seminar, besides the five victims being assisted on Manitoulin by Victim Services, is that there were 67 individuals involved in human trafficking in Algoma (down from 120 to 130 in previous years, probably due to COVID and a recent change in the location of the police station) and in 2019-2020 there were 61 individuals identified in Sudbury and area and 55 in 2020-2021.

Ms. Summers said that individuals can take action by spreading awareness, staying educated, helping others and sharing information on social media.

Keynote speaker Linda Harlos, a certified family coach, vlogger (video blogger), author and herself the mother of a trafficked survivor delivered a seminar on how parents can protect their children, even as toddlers, against the tactics of the traffickers. Those defences do not have to even mention sex, but rather tackle the underlying personality factors and traits those traffickers use to manipulate their victims.

“We should not expect children to know how to keep themselves safe,” said Ms. Harlos. She pointed out that the brains of human beings are not even fully developed into their mid-20s, so the term ‘children’ can be extended beyond what some might expect. “They do silly things,” she said. “We have all seen it, been there ourselves, probably.”

The first line of defence is communication. “Keep the lines open so they can come to you,” said Ms. Harlos. “Secondly, train yourself and your child anyway.”

Discover your child’s vulnerabilities,” she advised. “If we, as parents, don’t then a trafficker will.”

Ms. Harlos went on to relate how her daughter came to fall victim to sex traffickers. Her daughter, like many teenagers, was going through a period of rebellion. She came from a close family, with strong values. Her daughter attended a party with people she didn’t know, with only one friend going with her. At the party, her daughter was sexually assaulted repeatedly.

That started a spiral where her daughter blamed herself for being at the party and becoming unable to extricate herself from the situation. Then came guilt and a textbook case of trafficking.

Her daughter was bright, well-adjusted and popular but following that incident, she became ostracized and lost most of her friends. Even though it was not rational to an outside observer that her daughter had low self-esteem, that was the case. Insecurity among teenagers is not based solely on the criteria we might normally believe.

The number one means by which a parent can help shield their child is simply by spending time with them. “Take time to listen to them, do special events, no matter when they want to talk, listen,” said Ms. Harlos. “You might think to yourself ‘that is no big deal,’ but it is to them.” That is what counts.

Ms. Harlos suggests setting a calendar up with time set aside for each child individually. “One day a month at least for each child,” she said. “Your child needs to know you care about them.” That needs to be expressed in actions even more than words.

There are ways to teach a child, or maybe especially a toddler, how to respect others and, importantly, how to say ‘no.’

“You need to remember, when it comes to trafficking victims, 99 percent thought they said ‘yes’,” she said. “One in four girls and one in 20 boys have experienced some form of sex abuse before the age of 18, and 35 percent under the age of 12.” None of those victims were competent to say ‘yes’—to consent.

Consent needs to be clear, saying “maybe” or “I guess so” is not consent. It needs to be ongoing, a person can withdraw consent at any time, and yes, that means in the middle of the act. Consent given once is not consent given forever. Consent, said Ms. Harlos, must be also ongoing.

With teens and preteens, ask them if they have permission to post or share a photograph.

One exercise Ms. Harlos suggests is getting your child to write out what they think consent means.

As for teaching toddlers, we must fight against patriarchy. So, no tickling games without consent, grandparents (who are cited as being among the most common offenders in this practice)—this extends to making children hug and kiss people they don’t want to. Children must know that they have a right to speak up, and parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone, must respect that right.

Assistance can be obtained by contacting MNSVS at a 24/7 monitored telephone line: 705-370-3378; the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-833-900-1010; Noojmowin Teg Health Centre: 705-368-2182; Manitoulin Family Resources Crisis line: 705-377-5160; the Kids Help Phone:1-800-668-6868 (also 24/7); and the police non-emergency line: 1-888-310-1122 or for emergencies dial 9-1-1.