By Megan McClean
She was 16 years old.
The Edmonton police gave her a hotel room. They assumed she would be safe there until they could find her secure housing.
One hour after leaving the hotel, the police went back to check on the young girl. There were men in her room. She was already back in business.
“We’re not sure if she contacted her pimp or if he was looking for her, but she had a hotel room to work out of and someone had access to a computer,” recalled Jacqui Linder, founder of Chrysalis, a volunteer-run corporation that operates Canada’s only national human trafficking hotline.
The teen turned out to be a missing person from Ontario. She had been taken to Edmonton by an unknown man and sexually exploited for about a year before she was returned to her family, Linder said.
In a country not typically associated with human trafficking, situations like this are not uncommon. An Ottawa program called Project imPACT recently identified 140 women who said they are being forced to perform sex acts in the city – the youngest victim was 12 years old.
The pervasiveness of new technologies is making it difficult to protect children and punish predators. Nowadays, children own smart devices and have access to the Internet. They also learn about sex at an early age. This combination makes it easier to target youth for sexual exploitation. Traffickers know what sites and smartphone applications to use, who to target and how to lure them. Police and human trafficking stakeholders are starting to use the same apps and websites in an effort to rescue children from forced sex work.
“Technology has given children an exceptional level of independence at a developmental stage that may not necessarily be appropriate,” said Linder.
“Parents may monitor home computers and laptops but few monitor their child’s smartphone. Phone apps are now the number one recruiting tool and a child doesn’t have to be friends with the people they’re talking to – any one of whom could be a predator.”
The Internet and technology have caused an increase in recruiting because traffickers are able to remain anonymous. As well, police are less likely to find distressed sex workers because everything is done behind closed doors – appointments arranged via electronic communication and the sex worker taken straight to a designated room.
“It has completely transformed ‘the game’ and taken sex trafficking off the streets and onto laptops, hand-held devices and computers,” said Det. Mark Benallick, from the Toronto Police Service’s sex crimes unit.
Young girls in certain situations are more vulnerable to luring than others. A large percentage of domestically trafficked women and girls have histories of trauma, including child molestation, incest, sexual assault and physical abuse, Linder said.
Self-esteem also plays a role. Girls who feel lonely, neglected and in need of positive reinforcement are more susceptible.
“If a young girl has issues with self-esteem, doesn’t having a strong support system or doesn’t have a lot of friends, it’s not hard to coerce her and manipulate her into a relationship,” Linder said.
The chance to escape an unhappy life is not the only factor that makes girls easier to recruit. The girls can also be attracted by the temptation of making fast, easy money.
“Sex work is a way for young people to make money if they want some bling, new clothes or new technology,” Linder said.
This happened last year in Ottawa. Three teenage girls were found guilty of beating, drugging and threatening their peers. The “teen pimps” used social media to lure young girls to a home where they were forced to perform sex acts for men.
“Most of the time, it’s not girls doing anything to put themselves at risk – it’s the unregulated nature of the Internet,” said Diane Redsky, project director for the Canadian Women’s Foundation national taskforce on human trafficking.
Predators know what they are doing. They know what to say and what to do in order to lure a young girl into a life of sexual exploitation. Typically, the process of luring begins with a friend request. The predator, who can be acting as a young person himself, will then start a conversation.
“There are many areas on the Internet to lure children, from Facebook and Craigslist to Kik and Snapchat. If there’s a way to chat with someone on the Internet, there’s a way to lure children,” Det. Tami Casselman, a member of the Ottawa Police Service’s Internet child exploitation unit, said via email.
Over time, traffickers build trust and break down barriers that prevent a young person from meeting them in-person.
“The whole recruitment process is very targeted and methodical. Predators have the skills to identify a vulnerable young person and they build on the vulnerability,” explained Redsky.
The next step is to become the hero. The predator may promise a relationship, a family, a job, a party, or lure them with gifts. Once in-person contact happens, it is only a matter of time before they will force the girls to perform sex acts.
“You’d be surprised at how many potential victims actually believe in the promises that pimps will put out there. This is why we’re doing our best to educate young people and provide them with the knowledge and skills to recognize commercial sexual exploitation at its earliest stages,” Det. Benallick said.
More police services in Canada are working with websites, applications and technology to rescue children from sexual exploitation.
Ottawa Police Services created a unit that focuses specifically on rescuing girls under the age of 18 from human trafficking.
“It’s a problem here in Ottawa,” said Insp. Paul Johnston, who is part of the unit.
Officers in the unit assess the escort sections of online advertising sites looking for indicators that the subject is under the age of 18. Then, they arrange to meet the sex worker, acting as customers. Once at the room, they identify themselves as police officers and offer assistance.
“We try to make it known that there is help out there. Sometimes our first visit doesn’t yield anything but we leave our cards and information. From there, it may be instantaneous, it may take a few weeks or a few months but they usually say ‘Yes, I want help. I want out,’” Insp. Johnston said.
Ottawa Police Services have partnerships with community groups that then find the victims shelter, clothes and a new ID, according to Johnston.
“We make sure they’re stable again then we deal with the offender. It’s a long process,” he said.
In Toronto, the police service’s sex crimes unit has established working partnerships with online advertisement agencies. The police educate on the dangers of online advertising and remind advertisers of the obvious legal obligations they are bound by. For example, a girl under 18 years of age cannot participate in the sex-trade industry and her services should not be advertised online.
The RCMP deals with online exploitation of children through its National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre. They encourage the use of cybertip.ca, a national tipline for reporting online sexual exploitation of children. Here, anyone can submit any kind of information or content related to the possible sexual exploitation of a minor online. With close ties to local police services, they share information about who is uploading child pornography or advertising the services of young girls on the Internet.
But it is not just police services that are responsible for protecting Canadian children from traffickers. Everyone can play a role.
Internet safety is key in protecting children from predators online. From a young age, parents can teach their children about online privacy and the kinds of information and images that are inappropriate to share.
“Like all child rearing, they need to be monitored and guided in the right direction,” said Det. Casselman.
Visit stoptraffic.ca for facts about the sex trafficking of children in Canada, tips for parents on how to protect their child and potential indicators displayed by exploited victims.