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Girls younger than 18, members of LGBT community ‘at high risk of being recruited’

Mehreen Shahid

By Mehreen Shahid, Special to the Packet & Times

Samantha Ward, of the Child Advocacy Centre Simcoe/Muskoka, gives free workshops to schools, parents and other community service providers on how to identify cases of human trafficking.

MEHREEN SHAHID/THE PACKET & TIMES Samantha Ward, of the Child Advocacy Centre Simcoe/Muskoka, gives free workshops to schools, parents and other community service providers on how to identify cases of human trafficking.

A recent report is shining the spotlight on sex trafficking, its risk factors and the fact Simcoe County residents are not immune from the problem.

“We know it’s happening because we’re seeing young people coming through service providers,” said Samantha Ward, abuse prevention co-ordinator at the Child Advocacy Centre Simcoe/Muskoka (CACSM). “In the past, police would come across potential victims but not recognize them as victims of human trafficking. Now we’re seeing a number of police officers being trained in factors helping identify human trafficking, to be able to look beyond that initial call and ask better questions to determine if it’s human trafficking or domestic violence.”

According to a report by Lakehead University professor Natalya Timoshkina and students of the honours bachelor of social work program, focusing on risk factors, there have been three cases of sex trafficking in Simcoe County and 25 cases of related sex offences in all of Simcoe County and the District of Muskoka between 2013 and 2016. The report also indicates at least 58 victims have been identified, with 64% being minors.

“What we’re seeing in our area has generally been girls of under 18, and the LGBTQ population are very much at high risk of being recruited,” said Ward. “In Canada, the average age for kids to be recruited for sex trade is 12 to 14.”

The report, she said, points out two main risk factors community members need to be aware of: individual and systemic, or societal.

“Individual would be low self-esteem or self-worth, previous experience of abuse or trauma, mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency and lack of social support,” Ward explained, adding systemic factors include social marginalization because of gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity, lack of safe and consistent housing or living in poverty, unemployment, food insecurity and more.

“Aboriginal women are overrepresented in human-trafficking case,” she said. “If we look at the risk factors, a lot of them are applied to local aboriginal communities.”

Risk factors aren’t always so noticeable, however.

“You could be a straight-A student at school and have a large circle of supportive friends and family and still be vulnerable to this,” Ward said.

And trafficking isn’t a crime that always crosses borders. Targets could include youth in the community, in their own environment.

Traffickers, Ward explained, are skilled in learning about the young people — their likes, interests, wants and needs — and learning that information can be easy thanks to social media. Offenders will use the information to build a trusting relationship with the youth, then turn it into exploitation.

But there is still hope, said Ward. Slowly, service providers and front-line workers are becoming aware of the factors that create conditions that make local residents vulnerable to sex trafficking.

Through information already gathered and work done by service agencies, it is known victims will rarely self-identify.

“When we share information with young people, we give them indicators they should be watching for in their friends,” said Ward. “Some of the things include, do you know someone who has a secretive relationship with someone, a boyfriend who doesn’t come around, a friend who suddenly has expensive items, etc.?”

Family, friends and teachers can also be on the lookout for dramatic changes in behaviour, including a sharp drop in grades, absenteeism from school and a secretive social life.

“When a lot of these things pile up, that’s when there is cause for concern,” Ward said.

If enough red flags are raised, the CACSM can be contacted and can help determine if the case relates to human trafficking.

“If we feel there’s immediate risk to the person, we will go to the police,” said Ward.

Through the CACSM, she offers free workshops to schools, other community service providers or families on how to identify human trafficking. For more information, contact Ward at 705-327-0118 or