Though Nathalie didn’t realize it at the time, she’d been lured into the sex trade by human traffickers. Over the next 10 years, she drifted in and out of sex work, trafficked around the GTA and as far afield as Calgary. She would be starved and abused, sometimes forced to see back-to-back clients around the clock. When she was on her period, her pimp inserted a sponge inside her and forced her to keep working.
It’s hard to know exactly how many children are trafficked out of Ontario’s child protection system every year because there isn’t much hard data to go on.
Anecdotally, it’s high. More than half of the trafficked youth trauma counsellor Carly Kalish works with at East Metro Youth Services come from provincial foster care, group homes or youth shelters.
“It’s our greatest referral source,” Kalish said.
The province is in the midst of a sweeping overhaul of its child protection system. Part of that rebuilding includes money for six new youth transition workers aimed at helping keep youth in provincial care from becoming trapped in “The Game.”
As a 2015 Star investigation revealed, human trafficking in Ontario is a huge and growing problem. Since then, the province has established a new strategy to fight it, headed by Jennifer Richardson, herself a survivor of human trafficking and one of the country’s leading experts in combating the problem. Ontario is only the third jurisdiction in Canada to have such a strategy.
The new worker positions are targeted at youth between 16 and 24 years old. The call for applications went out in November and all have since been hired, said Ann Doose, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.
“There is research in Canada and elsewhere that says a high number of children who have been trafficked have been in care,” Richardson said. “But there’s never been any research that I’ve ever seen … about why that is.”
The average age of recruitment into the sex trade is 13, but it takes an average of two years just to identify a child who is being trafficked, Richardson said.
According to a U.S. study from 2013, between 50 per cent and 90 per cent of children and youth victims of sex trafficking had been involved with child welfare services.
“But is it really the care system or is it that those kids are already really vulnerable and offenders know that?” Richardson said.
A survivor of sex trafficking herself, Jennifer Richardson now heads the province's new anti-human trafficking initiatives.
The six new jobs that Ontario is funding, each at $70,000 a year, are located in the Greater Toronto Area, the Golden Horseshoe, Ottawa, Windsor, London and Thunder Bay — all areas the province describes as “hubs” of human trafficking.
Though Nathalie wasn’t in provincial care when she was recruited into the game, given her family history she easily could have been.
The risk factors that lead to youth entering provincial care are roughly the same ones that make children vulnerable to sex trafficking, Richardson said.
“If a child has an attachment issue, it’s really easy for an offender to make that child believe that they are going to love them, care for them, always be there for them, because that’s what they spend 100 per cent of their time doing at the front end,” Richardson said.
It’s called the Romeo strategy, and it’s perfectly designed to target the kind of vulnerabilities children like Nathalie so often have.
Unlike Nathalie, Elijah was living in a youth shelter the first time he traded sex for drugs. He was 16. His parents had kicked him out of the house two years before because he was queer.
“My mom loaded me up in the car, dropped me off at school and told the guidance counsellor, ‘I don’t want this kid anymore,’” he said.
Struggling with the trauma of abandonment by his parents and the “gruelling” environment of a youth shelter, Elijah started self-medicating with illicit drugs. But drugs cost money and, without any income, he did what a lot of his peers were already doing: trading sex for a fix.
“It was something that was talked about amongst a lot of the street kids. Being a young woman (at the time), you’re more in the spotlight for that,” he said.
When he turned 18, Elijah started working with escort agencies. As a “tall, leggy redhead” with a lot of tattoos, the agencies marketed him online as a sort of Irish “suicide girls” product. At first he said everything seemed safe, glamorous and empowering.
“And it was completely the opposite,” he said.
“A client beat the s--- out of me for two hours. I was covered in black bruises,” Elijah said. “My pimp was in the next room over and she didn’t do anything about it.”
On his worst days, he saw up to 16 clients without a break.
Compounding the vulnerabilities that many kids in provincial care already face is the convenience of having them often living together in close proximity.
Kalish said traffickers will focus on recruiting one young person in a group home or shelter. Once they’ve got that person firmly entrenched, they send them back to recruit other children.
“I don’t think it’s that there are guys hanging around outside group homes, because they don’t have to,” she said.
“Within the trade, the social norm becomes if you recruit, you bring your status up, so you get beaten up less, you work less. The more girls you recruit, the higher your status, so a lot of kids get recruited by other kids,” she said.
The Internet also makes it far easier to isolate and target vulnerable youth because so many of them broadcast their lives online.
“When I was recruited, they had to meet me in a mall and try to get me to come to their apartment,” Richardson said. “They don’t need to do that anymore. They can be doing it 24 hours a day because kids are online 24 hours a day.”
Elijah’s exit from “The Game” came when he started to transition from his life as a woman to one as a man. Male sex workers can’t charge as much, he said, and his pimps stopped booking him with clients. Desperate, he went to Sketch, a Toronto-based outreach group that uses art to work with street-involved and at-risk youth, and asked them for a job.
Given his experience both in sex work and as a trans person, they hired him almost on the spot, he said.
But for most people, getting out is nowhere near that straightforward. Richardson said it takes an average of seven attempts over three years for someone to leave the sex trade for good.
For Nathalie, it might never have happened at all if it weren’t for Carly Kalish at East Metro Youth Services.
Three years ago police found Nathalie by the side of the road. They referred her to victim services, which referred her to Kalish.
“It was immediate,” Nathalie said. “I was drawn to her.”
These days, Nathalie spends a lot of her time speaking to addictions groups and doing outreach. She tells the darkest parts of her story in simple, practised statements of fact. It isn’t until she describes meeting Kalish that she begins to choke up.
“She was the one thing that I needed, someone to show me love and be kind,” Nathalie said, dashing away tears.
Through Kalish, Nathalie was able to connect with resources she didn’t know existed. She got help enrolling in the Ontario Disability Support Program, and access to a peer counsellor who understood what she’d been through.
“She built a relationship with me. She got me to trust her by not judging me. In the past, when I’d see other social workers or police and paramedics, I always felt judged,” Nathalie said. “They didn’t see beyond the obvious overdose.”
While Kalish and Richardson agree that the new provincial worker program is an important step forward, both said more needs to be done.
Canada is lagging behind the U.S. both in studying the problem of human trafficking of youth in care and in addressing it, Richardson said.
In the U.S., every state is required by law to have a response to domestic trafficking. In Canada, only Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba have a formal strategy in place, she said. “The current federal action plan ended last year, so we still don’t have a national action plan.”
Richardson said there also needs to be more recognition of how widespread the problem is, and who is fuelling the demand for child sex workers.
“We never focus on who these guys are. They’re not psychopaths. Walk through the mall. Every fifth guy you walk by, that’s someone who could be purchasing sex from a child,” she said.
Published on: April 16th, 2017