Some Wellington County councillors were shocked to learn the extent to which human trafficking is a problem in the county.
“There is human trafficking in Wellington County. It may not look like what you might think it would in terms of what you see on TV … it’s important for all of us to be aware of it,” said Wellington OPP constable Jennifer Tschanz during a March 29 presentation to council.
Tschanz, the youth resiliency officer for Wellington County, explained human trafficking involves the recruitment, harbouring and/or control of someone’s movement for the purpose of exploitation, typically of either a sexual nature or forced labour.
As the rate of human trafficking goes up, OPP officers are encountering suspected cases through routine traffic stops and other interactions. They are “trained to identify … what this looks like,” Tschanz explained.
Often, she said, cases involve older males with younger females.
“It’s the vulnerable youth that we’re working with, that’s where we begin to see exploitation,” she said.
Common indicators outlined by Tschanz include:
– a person from another jurisdiction who is not dressed for weather;
– a substantial age gap between the pimp and victim;
– all parties being uncooperative;
– the male talking for female and/or having her ID;
– previous convictions for offences such as living on the avails of prostitution, procuring, bawdy house provisions;
– a driver who works for an escort service; and
– luxury rental vehicles, which are often used by traffickers.
“Control of (a victim’s) identification is key. Often we see that with the traffickers,” said Tschanz, noting such control means victims “have no means to obtain any social services. They’re scared. There may be threats to harm their family … isolation from their support network.
“Social media is where we traditionally see a lot the exploitation beginning,” Tschanz told council. “These people are really good at what they do, and it’s not always male; we often see female traffickers as well.”
Traffickers, she noted, primarily target young people.
“Entrance to this world is typically around the age of 12 to 14 … so within our county we’re looking to begin a lot prevention, education with that particular age group.”
Tschanz said Wellington County already has a strong network of support systems for victims and potential victims.
“For us (the OPP) it’s really educating the youth, the vulnerable people that we come in contact with to recognize what they could be getting into,” she said.
“I can assure you in our county we have tremendous support from social services agencies, shelters, victim services. We have a dedicated human trafficking support worker who we can rely on.”
Tschanz pointed out OPP school resource officers are being trained to watch for signs, such as students not attending school, or being picked up regularly after school by someone suspicious. However, she noted, traffickers find their victims in a variety of locations.
“Streets, highways, hotels, motels; it’s happening everywhere. It’s certainly not isolated to large centres. It is happening here,” she said.
When police find indicators of human trafficking, they still face challenges in communicating with victims.
“It really is about building a rapport with this person,” said Tschanz. “This person is often in the worst place of their life … They’re vulnerable. They have nothing … so for that officer who makes that two to five minute contact with that person, the likelihood of them saying, ‘Yes, I’m being trafficked, I need help,’ is very unlikely.”
However, if authorities are able to separate the vulnerable person from the trafficker and “get her some help, stabilize her for a few days … then we can begin to hopefully become involved in the investigation.”
The reluctance of victims to come forward is among the reasons the number of investigations launched by OPP does not reflect the scale of the human trafficking problem locally.
“As of September we have had three in this county and since September … I’ve been involved in two more investigations where we have had some indicators that there have been some human trafficking elements,” said Tschanz, adding police are “hoping for cooperation from the victims.”
“I find it shocking and distressing,” said councillor Chris White.
“There was a time when I was younger that it seemed like this kind of thing had been eradicated globally. That’s a little naïve, but to have this in our backyard, this is unbelievable. Especially with children.”
White asked Tschanz where the victims are coming from, wondering if victims were “kidnapped” or “street folks.”
“They’re coming from everywhere,” Tschanz replied. “They are drawn in from larger centres to our area but there really is a network.”
She explained human traffickers move with their victims up and down the 401 corridor, often staying just a few days at a time in various communities.
“Where are these pimps finding and accessing our youth? Malls, libraries, schools, corner store, the internet, social media, everywhere,” said Tschanz.
Councillor Dave Anderson suggested public awareness is needed to help combat the problem.
“I’ve talked a little bit to people in our area and they were not even aware of human trafficking,” said Anderson, who asked how quickly police can get traffickers off the streets once identified.
Tschanz said that depends on numerous factors, but she noted traffickers are often able to return to the streets if not held in custody, and even when incarcerated, they sometimes have people in place to keep the operation going.
“We’re trying, absolutely, and every police service that I’ve been in contact with in Ontario has been doing tremendous work to combat this,” she stated.
“It’s hard to believe that this is in our communities and no doubt the vast majority of the public feel the same way,” said councillor Andy Lennox.
“Is there a role that we can play in helping to get this information to people who can be most helpful?”
Tschanz, said education and awareness “is our best response,” at this point and offered to speak to organizations across the county about the issue.
“When I first heard this presentation I thought, ‘Not in Wellington County’,” said councillor Lynda White, the county’s police services board representative.
“But it’s here and we need to make sure that our people are informed.”
Despite the low profile, Tschanz said human trafficking isn’t a new issue and the justice system is beginning to catch up with the scale of the problem.
“Penalties and consequences are becoming much more severe for people who are convicted of human trafficking offenses,” she said.
“This isn’t something that has just started. This has been around for many years.”
While stating he wasn’t unaware of the existence of human trafficking in the area, councillor Doug Breen was surprised by how young victims can be.
“What I found shocking was the age of the people involved,” said Breen, who asked Tschanz what advice she could offer parents and grandparents.
Tschanz said she often speaks to Grade 6 students about social media and internet safety issues and that is a good place for parents to start.
She said young people should be encouraged to consider the “appropriateness of pictures, what you’re putting out for people to see, because often that’s where these pimps are first able to identify vulnerable youth.”
She said she encourages parents to check in on their children’s social media accounts “and have some limitations.
“If you are being engaged with someone online, how do we know who you’re talking to? Sadly we don’t,” she stated.
Tschanz also recommended,“having those really challenging conversations” with young people to ensure they understand “what does a healthy relationship look like.
“Talk to your kids about what they’re accessing. That truly is the way you’re going to be engaged with what they’re accessing on their devices – and everybody seems to have a device.”
More information on human trafficking is available at:
– www.protectchildren.ca; and