For Virginia, the end to her three-month nightmare came on a highway near Cornwall when she leapt from a moving car toward freedom.
It was September 2015, and Virginia — not her real name — had spent much of the past three months being ferried between hotel rooms and private homes in the National Capital Region, to have sex for money.The man who claimed to be her boyfriend had convinced her that by working temporarily as a call girl she could help them build a future together: to buy a home and launch a normal life. It was exactly the kind of future that Virginia longed for after a chaotic childhood.
Her “boyfriend” controlled all of their money while keeping her richly fuelled with cocaine. “He just knew how to talk to me, how to manipulate me: He knew exactly how to get to me,” she says in an interview at The Ottawa Hospital, which has a special program designed to identify people such as Virginia, and to help them.
Virginia, now 22 and suffering from post-traumatic stress, is one among a growing number of victims of human trafficking in Ottawa. It’s a crime that conjures images of desperate migrants jammed together into the back of delivery trucks, or lone and tattered women locked inside dark rooms. But in Ottawa, at least, human trafficking tends to look more ordinary. More like Virginia.
“The media portrayal of women being in chains, and tied up, that’s not it,” says Cynthia Bland, founder of the charity Voicefound, which operates an Eastern Ontario program to support women who have been trafficked.
Bland says human trafficking in Eastern Ontario tends to involve young men who use romantic deception, blackmail or violence to coerce young women into the sex trade. They often prey upon their need for money, security and love.The problem is much bigger than most people imagine, says Bland, whose Eastern Ontario program, Hope Found, helped 58 women since launching last May. Recently, in one month alone, the program added 12 new clients.
Human trafficking is broadly defined by the Criminal Code as an offence in which someone recruits, trades, controls or transports a person for the purpose of exploiting them. Victims are exploited for prostitution services or forced labour. Sex traffickers take advantage of women and children, while those who traffic in domestic workers and manual labourers tend to rely on the desperation of migrants.
The victims tend to be poor, and living without family or other social supports, which makes them more vulnerable to abuse.A July 2014 report by PACT-Ottawa, a non-profit group aimed at ending such abuse, identified 140 local victims of the crime. The vast majority (90 per cent) were young women from Ottawa coerced into the sex trade; many had been recruited at homeless shelters, group homes, methadone clinics and high schools.
Human trafficking is different than prostitution, insists PACT-Ottawa chair Terrilee Kelford, who has worked with children in foster care for 20 years: “The use of the word ‘trafficking’ has really allowed us to identify the difference between people who choose to be involved in the sex trade and those who are forced into it through coercion or violence or threats,” she says. “They used to get lumped into the same category, and now I think we see clearer lines between those two groups. It’s an important distinction.”Canada’s Criminal Code has been amended three times since 2005 to provide police a wider net to catch traffickers, and the former Conservative government launched a $6-million-a-year action plan to combat the crime.
In 2014, as part of a pilot project, the Ottawa Police Service established a five-officer unit to crack down on human traffickers. The unit, which was made a permanent part of the police service in January, continues to make arrests — most recently last week, when two people, a man and woman, were charged with human trafficking in connection with a young woman who went missing from Ottawa in April. She was was later found and rescued by police in Barrie.
“It’s a very big issue, but a lot of people aren’t aware of it because it happens behind closed doors,” says Sgt. Damien Laflamme, a former drug squad investigator who now heads the human trafficking unit.The rise in human trafficking in Ottawa has mirrored a decline in street prostitution. Pimps, he says, have recognized that evolution and now scour the city for young women they can exploit. The perpetrators, Laflamme says, can be divided into two broad categories: “Romeo pimps,” who use romantic relationships to lead women into the sex trade, and “gorilla pimps,” who use extortion and violence. Some pimps will take women to another city and steal their ID and credit cards to make them more pliable; others will tattoo their personal “brand” on the women.
“It’s very much a nasty game,” Laflamme says. “These guys are predatory in nature.”Statistics Canada last year analyzed police reports in an effort to identity the scope of the problem. Its July 2016 report found there were 396 known victims of human trafficking across the country between 2009 and 2014. (The crime tends to be underreported because of the reluctance of victims to come forward.)
Laflamme says the crime is challenging to confront. Fewer than one-quarter of victims interviewed by investigators will press charges, he says, and even when they go to court, convictions can be difficult to secure. Victims tend to be deeply traumatized, he says, and their memories can be affected by PTSD, past addictions and other mental health problems — all of which can make them imperfect witnesses.
According to Statistics Canada, the vast majority (93 per cent) of trafficking victims were women and adolescent girls. Almost half were between the ages of 18 and 24, while a significant number (25 per cent) were minors. One in three reported being physically assaulted by their trafficker.Experts say victims can become so isolated — and made so drug dependent — that they don’t even realize they’re being trafficked. Virginia, for instance, didn’t understand what was happening to her during the summer of 2015.
“I didn’t know I was being trafficked,” she says. “They were making me use drugs so I wasn’t in the right mindset. That’s what human traffickers do. That’s how it works.”Virginia thought she was in a romantic relationship until she learned her “boyfriend” was recruiting a second girl to work as a prostitute. Desperate to escape the situation but unable to conceive of a better plan, she leapt from a car as it sped down a highway near Cornwall.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” she says.
Another motorist stopped and called 911. She was taken to Cornwall General Hospital and transferred to The Ottawa Hospital, where she was treated for road rash, internal injuries and a severe concussion. She stayed in hospital for five days, and came into contact with the hospital’s Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program.
Tara Leach, a nurse practitioner, leads the team, whose members have been trained to provide specialized medical and forensic care to people who have been victims of sexual violence, domestic assault or sex trafficking.At least one nurse from the five-member team is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emergency room staff screen patients for signs of abuse, and suspected victims are referred to a member of Leach’s team.
“Our job is to be curious about a person’s situation,” says Leach. “We need to be curious and say, ‘Can we talk more just about life? Do you have access to your own money? Do you have addictions you want to address?’”
Leach became a sexual assault nurse examiner early in her career then went back to school to become a nurse practitioner in order to improve care for victims. She felt busy medical staff too often overlooked signs of victims’ trauma.
Members of Leach’s team take a “trauma informed” approach to patients such as Virginia. “When you’re trauma informed, you understand it’s not possible for the patient to present a perfect history: Their memories can have gaps, but that doesn’t make them liars. That’s a person with an imperfect memory for physiological reasons.”
Leach is careful to maintain a physical distance from her patients, and to explain her actions. She asks for consent anytime she touches a patient: “I never impose anything: I’m happy to wait, take my time.”The hospital program — part of a provincewide network of sexual assault treatment centres — offers sex-trafficking victims an important avenue of escape.
“It’s not very often that someone walks through the front door and says, ‘I’m a victim of human trafficking and I need your help,’” Leach explains. “What they do is they come in and they know something’s wrong. They need your guidance to know what that is and how we can make that better. We try to plant seeds of hope in a situation that seems hopeless.” Part of her job, Leach says, is to help trafficking victims understand that they have rights and choices inside a healthy relationship: “If their whole life has been chaotic, if their whole life has been about power and control — kids growing up witnessing domestic violence — they don’t know what a healthy relationship is and what their rights are.”
Virginia says she was “brainwashed” into believing her situation was acceptable. Leach says the experience bears similarities to Stockholm syndrome, a term coined to describe the condition in which hostages develop sympathy for their captors, sometimes even a strong bond with them. Leach’s team saw about 1,200 patients last year, up from 400 in 2012. Nurses try to engage patients and refer them to an outpatient clinic, where they can be assessed for mental health issues, sexually transmitted diseases and other medical problems. Victims are also connected with trauma counselors, such as those at Voicefound.
Voicefound founder Cynthia Bland says it can take years of counselling for trafficking victims to recover from the physical and emotional toll of their experience. “Peer support is incredibly important when you’re talking about people who have been so horrifically traumatized,” she says.Bland, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, founded her Ottawa-based charity in 2011 after struggling with mental health and addiction issues that she now recognizes as a byproduct of her early trauma. She launched Voicefound to identify and help others with similar trauma.
“There are a lot of hurting adults out there,” she says.The organization’s program for trafficking victims, Hope Found, has helped Virginia begin to rebuild her life. She’s now working toward finishing her high school education, and she dreams of one day becoming a social worker.
Virginia says she’s moving forward while trying to deal with the effects of PTSD and suicidality. “I’m trying to rebuild myself,” she says, “I’d like to help other girls who have been through the same thing.”
Published June 9, 2017