Picture yourself in a hotel room, waiting for your next client. Your boyfriend promised you’d only have sell sex for a year to help him cover his bills, but it’s been 14 months and he hasn’t kept his word. He’s become abusive, mean, and scary. As you wait anxiously for your next customer, you feel trapped. Fortunately, your next client doesn’t end up being a customer at all, but a police officer who says he wants to help you.
You decide to trust him, but have no idea what’s next.
We often talk about the need for more services for human trafficking victims, but what does this actually mean in practice? What happens to a victim when they are found by police, and who is in charge of providing them with basic necessities and support the moment they escape their trafficking situation?
I’d like to introduce you to Laura Burch, a victim support worker at Victim Services of Durham Region in Ontario, Canada. When I met Laura at a human trafficking conference a few months ago, I couldn’t stop peppering her with questions. She has kindly agreed to share some of her answers with Hope for the Sold.
How does a victim of human trafficking end up at your doorstep? Are they all referred to you by police?
I work in partnership with the Human Trafficking Unit. We work together very closely, relying on each other to best support the victims. Generally after a victim is rescued by the unit, I am notified by a member of the team and attend to assist the victim. This allows me the opportunity to support them and do a needs assessment while the police continue their investigation. At times other police services in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) have referred victims to me. I’ll work with any victim of human trafficking, police involvement or not.
What is the first thing you do when you come into contact with a victim? What is the goal of that first meeting, and what kinds of questions do you ask?
The first thing I do with a victim is explain my role and how I can help. I assess needs, like finding out if she is hungry or if she needs clothes or a place to stay. These are our most basic and fundamental needs; to have these addressed makes people feel safe for the moment. My goal in the first meeting is to gain trust, assess needs, and build a relationship, so as we move forward I have built a relationship to work with. Some questions I ask include:
- Do you have control of your ID or does someone else have it? (If she doesn’t, we will work to get it replaced)
- Do you have support from family or friends, or a place to live?
- Do you have a phone? (If she’s had her phone taken away, I can provide her with one. I want her to have a phone for 911 access, and so she can keep in contact with me)
I do a risk assessment, as well as ask about substance use and mental health. I can provide her with clothing, toiletries, and gift cards, but these items are all based on donations.
What are some ways you build trust?
To build trust, I’m very honest with the victims. I talk to them about their exploitation and it shows them I have a great understanding of what they have been through. I explain there is nothing they could say that would shock me, and what we talk about is just between us. Because of my experience, I’m able to say what they are thinking. We usually end up talking for hours. Trust is built with respect and compassion. It is something they haven’t felt in a long time.
What do you do if they don’t want your help?
If a victim of human trafficking doesn’t want my help, that’s their choice. If I have the opportunity to speak with them, I provide my phone number and explain if they ever change their mind or get in trouble they can call. I try to explain what their future looks like from my point of view, and if and when they are ready, realize I’ll be here.
What are some common themes from victim experiences?
The most common theme I’ve seen from victims is the “boyfriend” rouse. It involves a complete manipulation where he starts as the knight in shining armour, everything she has ever wanted. He takes her out, buys her things, emotionally supports and validates her, and finds out all of her vulnerabilities.
One day it all changes. She does anything she can to get back into his good graces. Sex becomes associated with reward, and the niceties are used as a tactic. The use and threat of violence is a reality; they become seasoned with a combination of psychological manipulation, intimidation, gang rape, sodomy, beatings, deprivation of food and sleep. The victims are consumed with fear of retaliation and death. Traumatic bonding occurs in many human trafficking situations. They are in a constant state of elevated hypervigilance, never feeling safe. They begin to distrust their own judgement, distorting their realities. Isolation and fear keeps them alone.
Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises because it holds relatively low risk with high profit potential. Unlike drugs, women can be sold repeatedly.
What is the best part about your job?
The best part of my job is the relationships I get to build and the transformations I witness. I believe I am privileged to have the opportunity to work so closely with these girls. I have seen some great successes and positive outcomes. It gives me hope. It also allows me to share this hope with other victims. People want to know they aren’t alone, that they can get through this.
What is the most challenging part about your job?
The most challenging part of my job are the “systems” – the justice system, the housing system, the welfare system, and the medical system. I provide as much support as I can, but there are often many barriers. I’ve been lucky in the last year to make a lot of connections, which allows for a more seamless transition of support.
If you were given $5 million to help victims, how would you spend it?
Although $5 million would not be enough, I’d create a centre for human trafficking victims outside of the city. It would encompass a whole wrap around service. Often girls coming out of human trafficking have a complete detachment to their bodies; they turn off signals including hunger, pain, and emotion.
I’d want to provide nutrition, yoga, Reiki, acupuncture, exercise; all ways to help reconnect to the body and start to introduce balance. I would have addiction therapists, mental health workers, life skills training, art therapy, gardening, and animal therapy, including having horses and dogs on site. It would be on a large piece of land where they could explore, ride horses, walk, run, and just be free.
If you could give a human trafficking victim support worker (someone with a similar role as you) any tips or advice, what would they be?
I would say to treat them like you would any other victim/survivor. Yes it is an insidious crime, we know that. But don’t make it more complicated because of the human trafficking label. They’re trauma victims, but we’re all different, we all react differently. The girls I work with just want to be heard, it helps them to find their voice again. They want to be respected, supported, and given choices. Work with them where they’re at. This may be all they know.
How can the public help?
The public can help by becoming aware of the problem. Learn as much as you can about human trafficking and then tell everyone you know about it, including your children. Read books, watch documentaries, research on the internet. You can donate items such as new (unused) clothing, pajamas, toiletries, gift cards, teddy bears, pay as you go phones. Some girls flee with nothing, so anything helps. Be aware when travelling and staying in hotels of the signs and indicators of human trafficking – if you see something, tell someone.
If you would like to contribute to Laura’s work and the girls she supports, she’s always in need of gift cards for grocery stores and restaurants (ie. Tim Hortons, Superstore etc), as well as VISA gift cards. You can send them to:
Victim Services Durham Region
(Attn: Laura Burch)
605 Rossland Rd. East
You can learn more about the excellent work Victim Services of Durham Region is doing here.