A small study of human trafficking survivors in Sudbury shows they believe the police and court system are failing them, leaving them feeling unsafe and without hope for justice or change.
This according to a community-based research project called Project RISE: Increasing Access to Justice for Survivors of Human Trafficking, commissioned by Angels of Hope Against Human Trafficking (AOH).
Written by AOH research and development co-ordinator, Jeffrey Bradley, and funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario, the study was released in early May and was based on three virtual focus groups with 15 survivors of sex trafficking who spoke about their experiences and their perceptions of how the justice system deals with sex trafficking.
Participants discussed what they saw as perceived gaps in services for survivors, measures to prevent human trafficking and “avenues to protect survivors’ wellbeing socially, economically, politically and culturally.”
Bradley has a background in criminology and transformative justice, a philosophy that posits oppression is at the root of all forms of harm, abuse, and assault. He began his career volunteering with Ottawa Victim Services and the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. He is currently completing his PhD in legal studies at Carlton University after completing his master’s degree in Criminology with Dr. Irvin Waller, renowned victimologist and violence prevention expert.
Based on the experiences of the 15 people he spoke to, Bradley said the heart of many issues in human trafficking stem from a lack of options.
“The root of a lot of crime is poverty and economic exclusion,” he said.
In addition to poverty, there are structural inequalities, including housing and food insecurity, mental health/addiction, family violence, neglect and intergenerational trauma that can make someone a target, said Bradley. The isolation of northern reserves can also bring traffickers, preying on those who may be looking for hope in a larger city.
Statistics show that more than 50 per cent of victims of human trafficking are Indigenous women and girls, despite the fact that only 2.8 per cent of the population of Ontario identifies as Indigenous.
Participants reported that they believe more resources need to be put into protecting the rights of the survivors, and not the trafficker; a feeling that the police would only punish, not protect.
Bradley told Sudbury.com that perception could stem from the fact the legal system places people into a binary.
“You're either a victim or you're an offender, and there's no in between on that,” he said. “But in reality, we know that people who are criminalized are often victims themselves.”
Bradley said this can even happen to survivors who are attempting to escape: they are criminalized and cannot access victim’s services. “You almost need to kind of be that ‘ideal victim’.”
Several participants told Bradly police often used their previous actions or criminal records against them.
“Survivors’ historical experience with previous charges and reports of sexual assault, drug use and sex work were said to be used to ignore pleas for protection from police, and sometimes led to the criminalization of survivors,” reads the report. “Many survivors were charged for engaging in sex work, being homeless, having addiction issues, and being coerced by traffickers to recruit others.”
Increasingly, participants said traffickers are forcing their victims to convince other women to begin sex work, creating an arm’s length separation, resulting in charges against the trafficking victims, not the traffickers.
According to the report, police were “viewed as an unsafe option” for survivors to report incidents of human trafficking.
“There was a deep concern by some survivors about police being unable to get them out of trafficking situations because of movement across multiple jurisdictions, internal bias or judgment when seeking help.” This, in addition to the safety risk to themselves or family and friends if they reported.
Many traffickers not only threaten their victims with violence or death, but also their loved ones, including children.
The survivors in the study noted that online threats and ‘cyberstalking’ are not taken seriously as crimes and no actions were taken to protect them. They stated they felt legal tools such as restraining orders and peace bonds did little to protect survivors because the responsibility is on them to prove a risk of harm. Not only that, but to show evidence of the need for protection on a regular basis, as these bonds require consistent renewal.
Survivors also said they feel marginalized within the court system. The report states traffickers are rarely prosecuted because of the heavy burden of proof and difficulty obtaining objective evidence, and even when they are charged, survivors said the length of the process hampers their ability to move forward with their lives. This can include delays in the court process, but also, the study notes that if the trafficker is involved in other criminal activities, the police will wait to build a stronger case, rather than simply pursuing the trafficking charges, adding further delays.
The report detailed the survivors' trauma at testifying and facing cross-examination by a defence lawyer, who will use their past sex work or past criminal activity while under the control of a trafficker as weapons against their credibility.
The survivors also said their avenue into forced sex work is not what film and television would have you believe — it’s far more insidious.
“You’re innocent, and they pulled you off the street and threw you in a van Hollywood-style? Most people don't fall into that,” Bradley said. “Most people are victimized by someone they know rather than a stranger.
“Most of the time, somebody who pretends to be in love with them (the survivor or victim) becomes their partner. Then it turns into this scheme of exploitation and abuse, and they lose total control of their lives.”
Addiction and trafficking also go hand in hand. Sometimes it is an existing addiction used to keep victims attached to the trafficker, but often it becomes a coping mechanism for the abuse they are suffering, said Bradley.
Among suggestions for change that include a more survivor-focused justice process — study participants were surprised that prosecution charges are not laid on behalf of the victim but rather for offences against the Crown, which made them feel invisible — is the need for survivor-led resources to help with recovery.
“Examples of support can include safe housing, counselling, healing circles, harm reduction, peer support, and medical treatment.”
These after-care recovery supports could also be seen as the route to prevention, said Bradley. Ensuring access to non-medical services that influence health outcomes, including income protection, housing and food security, early childhood developmental support, social and economic inclusion, and access to affordable health and treatment options.
“Essentially, upstream prevention, getting to the root causes of this so that others don't get into a trafficking situation,” he said.
Survivors also feel more supported by those with lived experience; in the study, several participants said they would prefer to report to someone who understands the trauma of human trafficking. The survivors also stated their desire to turn their experiences into preventative action.
“Everyone in our group wanted to give back and help others learn the signs of human trafficking, to stop the cycles of gender-based and sexual violence that eventually lead to trafficking,” said Bradley.
You can find more information about Angels of Hope Against Human Trafficking here.
Human trafficking can be reported by calling the Greater Sudbury Police Service at 705-675-9171, Sudbury Crime Stoppers at 705-222-8477, or the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010. The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline is a confidential, multilingual service that operates 24/7.
Human trafficking can also be reported to GSPS by filing a report through the online reporting system: GSPS.ca/en/reporting/human-trafficking.aspx
Jenny Lamothe covers vulnerable and marginalized communities for Sudbury.com.