Human trafficking represents a growing form of child abuse in Ontario

Nancy French, CEO of York Region Children’s Aid Society, discusses how pimps lure youth in care into the sex trade with promises of a better life and what child welfare and the police are doing to stop it.

Nancy French, , Interim Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer, has been with York Region Children’s Aid Society for 31 years.

Nancy French, CEO, has been with York Region Children’s Aid Society for 31 years.

How did you first learn that human trafficking is an issue that concerns child welfare?

We work closely with York Regional Police on a number of fronts, including child abuse. One day back in 2013 Detective Sergeant Thai Truong contacted me and said, “You probably don’t know this, but we’ve been working in the area of human trafficking for some time, and we’ve noted that every single girl we’ve come in contact with has had Children’s Aid involvement at some point in her life.”

Were you surprised by this information?

Yes, I was. I realized that we needed to put some attention to this because there were obviously signs and circumstances that we as a child welfare system and as an agency had missed. I realized that I had a very narrow understanding of human trafficking. It fell within what most people probably think when they first hear about human trafficking. “Oh, that’s when young girls and women from Europe are brought to North America under false pretenses and then become involved in the sex trade.” That is actually a very small piece of human trafficking. The idea that human trafficking is not a domestic issue is quite false, and the perception that some may hold — that human trafficking “is not in my backyard or in my community” so to speak — is equally false. Human trafficking can be simplified and defined as providing a labour or service out of fear.

Given the broad definition of human trafficking, is there a specific kind that your agency intersects with?

The majority of cases involve girls being lured, emotionally coerced, and exploited in the sex trade. At this time, much of our work at York CAS has been responding to the concerns of youth in the community, youth in our care, including Crown wards, some of whom are actively being lured, and those youth whom we have discovered are currently involved as victims of human trafficking.

Can you provide a little more detail on how the trafficking of young girls implicates Children’s Aid and not just the police?

When human trafficking involves children and youth who are under 18, it’s a child protection issue. Human trafficking is a form of child abuse. Our job is to step in and protect these girls — and I’ll point out that we’re talking about girls because we haven’t as yet come across any male victims, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We need to identify and intervene effectively to redirect or rescue kids who are engaged in human trafficking.

But human trafficking is also a child welfare issue from a prevention standpoint, and this is the issue that Detective Sergeant Thai Truong was pointing out. The average entry into human trafficking is 14 years of age. The grooming process can start as early as 12 or 13 years of age. That’s the age of a very large number of the children we work with both in the community and in our care. And when you look at some of the vulnerability factors that make a child high risk for human trafficking, that also describes the children we work with. So we have a responsibility to understand better how we can keep kids safe and out of harm’s way with human trafficking.

Why are kids in the child welfare system so vulnerable to human trafficking?

Pimps are very, very cunning in terms of targeting the most vulnerable, at-risk, disenfranchised youth. Kids in child welfare are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised youth. Girls have usually experienced some form of abuse and neglect in their life. They’ve suffered from abandonment, either physical, meaning they truly belong to no one, or emotional, meaning they’re truly disconnected from any family. The father figure has either not been a strong, positive presence or the father figure has been completely out of the picture. Girls are susceptible to the grooming process and the luring into human trafficking because of the promises pimps make. They promise these girls a different and better life and lifestyle. They promise an emotional connection, which may be lacking in their life. And they are often promised a romantic relationship with the pimp, who is well aware of the power of this allure. Many of our kids are really looking to have roots somewhere, to belong somewhere and with someone. They are looking for family, and the pimp promises them this.

What steps did your agency take once the connection was made between human trafficking and child welfare?

We created a formal protocol with York Regional Police, specifically the Drugs and Vice Unit on Human Trafficking, to openly share information with them, the first such protocol in the province as far as I know. What is unique to this protocol is that we boldly decided to have as much open sharing of information as possible — to really stretch information sharing to its limit, because we believe that it is the only way to intervene and to protect. So when the police are out there and they find youth who fall under our mandate and require child protection, they call us as a referral or for consultation. And vice-versa. We call them when we have concerns or knowledge that a youth we’re working with may be involved in human trafficking. We also need the assistance of the police when redirecting or rescuing kids who are engaged in the process of human trafficking. Because there are two sides to this: there’s the victim as well as the pimp.

How successful has this partnership been?

In 2014 we had 20 referrals. In 2015, we doubled that to over 45 referrals. Half-way into this year, we’ve already reached last year’s numbers. What these numbers are saying is that early identification is working. These results have also allowed us to strategize on how to help these kids in a far more holistic way.

What are some of the other ways you’re addressing human trafficking in your agency?

We’ve established an internal human trafficking committee that is cross-departmental. We now have mandatory training provided to our staff on human trafficking in relation to the sex trade so they can bring that lens to the families and children that they’re serving. We’re also in the early stages of working with York University on a research project involving interviews with victims and service providers, with the goal of coming up with tools and programs that will help us better identify at-risk youth in the early stages. It’s unchartered waters in terms of doing research, and it is going to be the foundation of moving forward on how we can better identify and provide appropriate service to both victims of human trafficking and their families. In an ideal world victims will be able to reintegrate back into healthier families.

What are some of the next steps you would like to see child welfare take regarding human trafficking?

I would like to see a provincial strategy that is cross-governmental so that everything we do involving human trafficking aligns consistently. We have a better chance of really addressing human trafficking from a policy level. When you peel back the issues I talked about earlier — disenfranchised individuals and families, poverty, housing, disconnection to community, alcoholism and substance abuse — all of these things have to be addressed at a higher level. We will not be as effective without a policy and framework that addresses the core issue of why kids are vulnerable to human trafficking.

This interview has been condensed and edited.