Trafficking problem has too many solutions

  • February 26, 2016

There’s no easy way out of Ontario’s sex trafficking crisis and no shortage of opinions about first steps.

Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament Laurie Scott has put forward a plan that focuses on criminal justice reforms. Her private member’s bill titled “The Saving the Girl Next Door Act, 2016” envisions an expanded definition of “sex offence” so that convicted pimps and sex traffickers would be listed in the provincial sex offender registry. Her bill would give trafficked women the option of suing their traffickers in civil court without having to go through a criminal trial. Protection orders, a system in place in Manitoba, would grant court protection to trafficking victims in the same way that restraining orders protect harassed and abused women escaping violent boyfriends and husbands.

Scott’s bill would also declare Feb. 22 Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Ontario.

The bill passed second reading with unanimous support of the legislature on Feb. 18. It now goes to the standing justice committee for review before a final debate and vote.

The governing Liberals have been consulting with social service agencies, victims advocate groups, academic researchers and police. Premier Kathleen Wynne has called sex trafficking in Ontario a “crisis.” She promises a government package of programs and reforms in June.

A December all-party legislative report called Ontario a “major hub” for human trafficking with 90 per cent of the victims being young women and underage girls.

The province doesn’t have to wait until June. It could fund more dedicated detectives focused on human trafficking at police forces across the province and provide more training in police colleges now, in addition to passing her bill, said Scott.

“Ontario needs to step up to the plate. We’re behind Manitoba for God’s sake. We can’t wait any more, there’s a crisis now,” Scott told The Catholic Register. “These are immediate steps I’m calling for. Is it everything? No. It’s the start of a long line of things we need to do.”

The Liberals are not convinced a cops-and-courts approach will work without social policy and programming that supports victims. The government’s plan will “focus on collaboration with other levels of government, community groups and justice partners,” Tracy MacCharles, Minister of Children and Youth Services and Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, said in an e-mail.

“As we move forward, our approach will be survivor centred and it will be responsive to needs on the ground,” MacCharles said.

Too much money and time spent trying to put pimps in jail ignores the fact less than 10 per cent of human trafficking cases go to court, said FCJ Refugee Centre director Loly Rico.

“We need more resources for trafficked people. We need to provide better services, provide safe houses, provide trauma counselling,” said Rico. “It’s OK to put them in jail. But the majority of cases are not reported to police.”

The refugee centre, founded by the Faithful Companions of Jesus, has been working on human trafficking since 2002 and is one of the founding members of the Toronto Counter Human Trafficking Network that encompasses 30 organizations.

Police involvement scares the women whom FCJ Refugee Centre has helped exit the sex trade. Many of them have no legal immigration status in Canada and fear any contact with law enforcement.

On the services and support side of the equation, Covenant House has just opened the first two dedicated crisis beds for young trafficked women in Toronto. The Covenant House beds are just one element of an anti-sex trafficking effort that goes back years, but got a boost this year from the Rogers family, owners of the cable empire, the Toronto Blue Jays and Rogers Centre among other interests.

Suzanne Rogers, wife of Edward Rogers III, has lent her social connections and her family’s foundation to a $10-million fundraising campaign in support of Covenant House’s “Urban Response Model” to prevent sex trafficking and to heal and restore victims. The “Just Like a Girl You Know” campaign has already raised $6.5 million, including $1.26 million over five years from the Public Health Agency of Canada, $740,250 over five years from Justice Canada, $75,000 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation for data collection and sharing, a $1 annual lease on a house from Toronto Community Housing, $1 million from the Slaight Family Foundation and $1 million from the Rogers Foundation.

The crisis beds at Covenant House aren’t a stand-alone proposition. They will be backed up by transitional housing and wraparound counselling and education services for girls escaping the sex trade. The transition house will be called The Rogers Home.

Housing and counselling are “the basics,” said Sr. Sue Wilson, director of the Office for Systemic Justice of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph.

“The law-and-order focus is not helpful,” said Wilson. “All you have to do is look at the number of cases that have gone through the courts to realize it’s not an effective approach. Hardly any of the cases are going through the courts. People who have been trafficked often don’t want to deal with the legal system.”

Since 2013, Toronto police have handled 359 trafficking incidents and arrested 114 pimps.

Wilson’s research on human trafficking has been used by the United Nations Commission for Social Development and she has been in recent discussions with the Ontario government.

Wilson isn’t saying there’s no place for police and courts in solving the problem.

“It is a crime. There’s no doubt there. What I’m saying is that focusing on law and order has been found to be ineffective. So let’s focus on protecting the rights and providing services to the person who has been trafficked. Let’s see if that doesn’t put people in a position where they’re ready to come forward and deal with the legal system.”

Wilson is also wary of an exclusive focus on the sex trade.

“It just kind of turns a blind eye to the labour trafficking that is going on,” she said.

Statistics show 80 or 90 per cent of human trafficking is based in prostitution. However, the numbers should be approached with caution, according to Wilson.

“We’re kind of confirming what we recognize already,” she said. “We recognize the sex trafficking and that’s where the statistics are gathered.”

You can’t claim much statistical accuracy about a hidden, criminal, black-market economy.

“We don’t have the data.”

The ex-nurse and Conservative MPP Scott doesn’t want her effort pigeon-holed as a law-and-order response to a social problem. But she wants action now, not more studies.

“The victims’ services are crying for more. The survivors are crying for more. And the police services want more,” said Scott. “There’s patchworks of victim services, patchworks of police forces. They all need to be co-ordinated. That’s the provincial government’s role.”

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