Supporting Survivors of Sex Trafficking as They Step Forward into a Life of their Making

 

When Erica* moved into one of Covenant House Toronto’s two residential programs for survivors of sex trafficking, she barely spoke to anyone.

Despite finding the sanctuary she needed at that time, Erica still suffered from severe depression; she found herself unable to leave her room, or to engage with staff.

All youth who show up at Covenant House have experienced some form of trauma and as a result, are often quite guarded. This is why it is so important to meet young people where they are in their healing journey to help build trust – something staff took great care to do with Erica.

After just six months of gradually engaging in counselling, slowly getting to know peers and staff and pouring herself into her education, Erica is now preparing to head to university.

Moving from a residence for youth who have been trafficked, to a university residence is a major life milestone, one that speaks volumes about what is possible when youth are supported in their journeys towards healing and a bright future of their making.

“It was especially moving that Erica wanted a Covenant House staff member to accompany her as she attended orientation and for move in,” says Fiona Douglas, Interim Program Manager, Anti-Human Trafficking Services. “It says a lot that she wanted staff to go with her.”

Sex trafficking is a growing crime in Canada that often happens right in front of us. It can happen to anyone. Every single year, we see more youth who are experiencing sexual exploitation via trafficking seek support from Covenant House. In 2022, we helped 150 young women by providing specialized counselling services, a safe place to stay and to live, crisis support and trauma therapy.

Our model of care is evidence-based and trauma-informed, always cognizant of the significant and long-lasting impact sex trafficking can have on an individual’s overall well-being.

The pandemic shifted the landscape of sex trafficking, Fiona says, with traffickers moving services more underground. Youth were forced to meet in cars or at private homes, rather than in hotels or more public places. Lockdowns also contributed to isolation, which made it easier to lure lonely youth online or target those who needed a form of income after retail and service sector opportunities dried up.

Substance use and mental health needs have increased amongst youth since spring of 2020 and, tragically, we lost some youth to overdoses during the darkest months of the pandemic, Fiona says. Some youth who had stopped using substances prior to the pandemic started again, a familiar coping mechanism during a very stressful time.

Youth have reported our approach to building trust recognizes the trauma they have experienced and therefore allows them to open up to staff when they are ready and at their own pace, added Fiona.

Staff in Covenant House’s sex trafficking outreach and residential programs support youth in countless ways, including by advocating for them within the justice system. Fiona says the program also does educational outreach and workshops to judges and Crown attorneys to help them understand the complex experience of being trafficked and the sustained impact this can have on survivors.

Another way Covenant House works to support youth and raise critical awareness about this concerning trend and to prevent it from occurring in the first place is through offering in-school presentations and hospitality industry training to help keep youth safe.

These presentations help increase young people's understanding of sex trafficking so they can better recognize red flags, know how and where to get help, and protect themselves and their peers. Our hotel training familiarizes hospitality staff with warning signs and appropriate responses so they can intervene confidently and safely.

“There is often an 'aha moment' among students when they learn that trafficking can happen to anyone, and that it might be something their peers are dealing with,” says Awareness and Prevention Program Supervisor, Suzie Tarlattini. "Quite often, students, teachers and hotel staff alike approach me after a presentation to thank me for Covenant House's dedication to supporting survivors and for our continued efforts to help keep youth safe."

For more information, including educational resources on sex trafficking, Traffick Stop.