Agencies working to normalize conversations on human trafficking

WELLINGTON COUNTY –  In 2015, when Crime Stoppers Guelph Wellington launched its human trafficking campaign at Stone Road mall, the idea of such a monstrous activity happening in Wellington County was too much for some to wrap their heads around.

“We had people actually coming up to us and saying, you know, ‘It’s disgusting that you’re talking about this, I can’t believe you’re doing this in a public place — it doesn’t happen here,’” Crime Stoppers program coordinator Sarah Bowers-Peter said recently.

But it does. And it is — right here, right now, in Wellington County.

Wellington OPP youth resiliency officer Beth Hickey is currently working an active case involving a youth who has been communicating with a trafficker outside the county.

And since the Crime Stoppers campaign began, Bowers-Peter said officials have received a number of human trafficking tips each year.

“What people don’t realize is those girls didn’t originate in large city centres … they originated in small towns like Arthur, and Erin and Fergus — that’s where the girls are coming from and that’s where the recruiters are targeting, especially right now,” Hickey said, noting young boys and marginalized groups like those within the 2SLGBTQIA+ community are also at risk.

To bring the conversation of human trafficking out from the shadows and into the light, Guelph Wellington Crime Stoppers, Wellington County OPP and Victim Services Wellington have teamed up to launch a two-year awareness campaign under the social media hashtag #HTinWC, standing for “Human Trafficking in Wellington County.”

Started in January with funds from a provincial Community Safety and Policing Grant, the campaign strives to educate through social media, advertisements, community engagement and the training of police.

Hickey, a former high school science teacher, said human trafficking, along with sexual assault, go “under the radar” because of a “lack of awareness of what human trafficking is, the grooming process, and things like victim blaming” deterring those who need help from reaching out.

And getting an idea for just how many people are being trafficked within the county is difficult to unpack without organized police data.

Police involvement often begins with an unrelated call for something else like domestic or sexual assault, with the trafficking element materializing only once an investigation is fleshed out.

On top of that, many victims don’t report to police or consider themselves victims because of the emotional and psychological complexities instilled during the initial grooming process.

According to Hickey, however, there were 48 women enrolled in the Guelph Wellington Women in Crisis anti-human trafficking program during 2019-20.

“Even though they could literally walk out the door and leave, they are not psychologically equipped to do so …” Bowers-Peter said.

“When they finally overcome that, then there’s that whole thing about, ‘How do I go home and who am I going home to?’”

Victim Services Wellington executive director Elizabeth Kent said by the time her agency engages with victims there is often a trend of addiction and isolation issues.

“Our goal is to stabilize them and get them somewhere they’re safe, where they can work on themselves longer term,” Kent explained, adding the agency can help cover the costs of relocating and addictions treatment.

In 2020-21, the agency has served 33 human trafficking victims throughout the county.

The sad truth, the women say, is most children with social media and larger followings have already interacted with “creeps,” and the warning signs need to be taught to children and parents, so everyone knows what to look for.

“You’ve put [children] in a world community when you’ve allowed them to be online,” Bowers-Peter said of parents, likening a lack of online safety knowledge to giving a child car keys and never teaching them how to drive. This is now as much a part of parenting as providing shelter and food and all of that – you want to keep them safe.”

Recruiters or groomers, as Hickey refers to them, prey mostly on young girls, first interacting through social media, smartphone apps and online gaming to build a relationship with the ultimate goal of eventually coercing them into the sex trade.

“For them, these youth are a commodity,” Hickey said. “It’s about emotionally manipulating them to the point that they’re 100 per cent depending on the person.”

Prior to the Upper Grand District School Board’s April decision to remove OPP officers from its schools, Hickey presented to elementary students on online safety and talked of red flags to watch for.

“It is a tough thing to talk about to 10- and 11-year-olds but the average age of kids being trafficked is 13 years old,” she said.

“The victim cares about this person, because the groomer, the trafficker, has made a huge investment in time and energy to make that victim feel special,” Bowers-Peter explained.

“These criminals are deliberate and highly skilled in what they’re doing. They know who they’re looking for and they know what it will take to break them down and draw them into the human trafficking world.”

Things for children to look out for include:

  • online friend requests from strangers;
  • professions of love and offers to buy things/go shopping;
  • saying negative things about family members to try and create a divide and separation;
  • probing questions about personal life, searching for information; and
  • treat anything posted online as though anyone can see it.

Things for parents to look out for with children include:

  • appearance of expensive new items, like a phone or jewelry;
  • privacy and sharing settings on social media;
  • location permissions and sharing on smartphone apps; and
  • keeping a list of passwords for child’s devices and online accounts.

Children and parents should be aware traffickers look for:

  • information posted on social media;
  • photos and location information posted to social media;
  • criminal courts, youth hubs or schools with unsupervised children;
  • online social games where trust can be built;
  • vulnerable children experiencing home and relationship problems; and
  • any opportunities to exploit.

“We are hitting just the top of the iceberg. There’s going to be so much more of this because it goes beyond what we as a society understand,” Bowers-Peter said.

But she’s hopeful things will get better with more online literate generations.

“The hope is, as the generations move through, they’ll get better at it frankly, and there’ll be more conversation around it because that seems to be the fundamental breakdown,” she said.