By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
This is the third in a four-part series on human trafficking. Through the first two parts, The Oshawa Express has shared the story of Katie, a survivor of human trafficking who agreed to share her story in order to help illustrate the insidious nature of this crime and also to help raise awareness about the growing issue. In Part 2, The Express went undercover with the DRPS human trafficking unit on a sting operation targeting Johns seeking sex with underage girls. It offered a behind the scenes look at what the police are doing to battle this crime on the street. The Express also detailed the educational and message-spreading arms of the DRPS Human Trafficking Unit to show how they are trying to educate Durham and get the word out about this heinous crime.
In Part 3, we take an in-depth look at what it takes to get out of the sex trade, the nightmarish court process that survivors must go through if they want to seek justice against their traffickers, and we speak with those who know best about the levels of trauma that come with being sold for sex for any period of time.
There were too many drugs in her system, she knew it.
Her body was raked with seizures and Katie turned to the man she was with, a familiar client and asked for help. She needed to go to the hospital, she said.
He had another solution.
“He just said, if I have sex with you that will take your mind off of it, and then he raped me,” she recalls. “That was kind of a constant thing.”
It was 2014, and her nightmarish trip to Calgary with her former “boyfriend” was long behind her. However, a brutal relapse had forced Katie back into the sex trade. The man she was with was one she had seen before, but things had started to go from bad to bottom of the basement terrible. Bad drugs, bad tempers and coercion mixed and once again, Katie was trapped in a situation she saw no way out of.
“The first couple times that I saw him it went okay,” she says. “But then I got very sick and I didn’t understand because he told me it was cocaine, even though I knew it wasn’t.”
“I saw his temper, I saw that kind of dark side to him, but I was too afraid,” she says. “When he would go to work and I was left in the condo, could I have left? Absolutely, but I felt trapped, I felt scared, I felt like if I leave here, he knows where I live, he’s going to come and kill me, and that fear is real.”
However, in the summer of 2014, something started to change in Katie’s mind. The overdoses, the three-day long hallucinations, the rape, it was all too much.
“Bottom line, doing what I was doing, washing my body in bleach, I had enough, I was ashamed of the person I was, I hated the person I was, I didn’t want to live that way anymore.”
So, she booked herself a bed in a treatment centre, and despite having to wait a few months to get in, she eventually made it in September of 2014.
“I graduated from the treatment centre feeling amazing,” she recalls. “Never felt better, and literally my first stop after going home, I think I went within a week, was to the police station.”
Her newfound sense of strength and confidence felt as thick and tough as a brick wall as she marched into the station.
“I remember feeling empowered and feeling like I’m doing the right thing, and (the police) reassured me,” she says. “I went in there, I am woman, here me roar.”
However, that brick wall almost immediately started to crumble as she shared the details of what she’d been through, the names of her traffickers and all the gory details. She quickly learned it was too soon.
“I was not ready. As soon as I walked out of that police station I wanted to die, all of them knew where I lived, I was in a relationship and I was worried for him,” she says.
It was also clear that the traffickers still had a hold on her. It was not just reliving the complicated trauma that had snuffed out her newfound confidence, but the entire act felt like betrayal.
“I betrayed them, I betrayed this guy who was my boyfriend and I actually felt guilty,” she says.
It was exactly 86 days after treatment when Katie relapsed and she tried to kill herself.
She woke up in hospital in a five-point restraint with two police officers standing guard outside her door. Once again she was left with one thought, “it didn’t work.”
It was January 2015.
Her sobriety was touch and go after that. For three months, Katie consistently relapsed.
“Their trauma is more complicated, because these women generally often think that their pimp is their boyfriend, because that’s usually how it starts. So you could look at it from a domestic perspective,” says Laura Burch, the shelter services manager at Bethesda House, a women’s shelter in Durham Region that supports survivors of human trafficking.
And in Katie’s case, nobody would know it better than Burch, who was her support worker when Burch was with the Vicim Services of Durham Region when Katie got sober once again in April of 2015.
While Katie never stayed at Bethesda House where Burch works now, the home is funded for 18 beds, but will generally use the space they have to squeeze more women in if they need to.
While victims of human trafficking are a small portion of the clientele who come through the doors, Burch says they generally stay longer, and will receive the full range of services offered to help with their trauma and recovery.
However, to start, it’s all about basic needs, and the first thing many of them want to do when they arrive; sleep.
“We’ll try to give them their own room, just because they’ve been through so much, we don’t want to overwhelm them with other people and what they have going on and they spend a lot of time just sleeping,” Burch says.
For Katie, it was just too hard to do anything else.
“After all this happened I physically couldn’t get out of bed. I was depressed, anxiety, (before) I could not leave my house unless I was high. Now, I’m sober and dealing with all this crap,” Katie says.
Having someone there for her was critical. Whether it was something small, like talking through getting out of bed for a glass of water, or something much bigger, Katie says Burch was there all the time, just a phone call away.
“She got me to break my meth pipe because I didn’t want to smoke anymore but I couldn’t do it alone. She stuck by me on the phone, at midnight, to help me,” she says. “She believed in me.”
At Bethesda House, Burch says that help comes in the form of empowerment. A small helping hand that can start the long and painful process of rewiring a brain that has been knotted with trauma, making the smallest of decisions almost impossible.
“You’ll ask them what they want to eat and they just can’t make a decision, they just don’t know,” Burch says.
To help with that, Burch says Bethesda House has front line councillors in the house, and a mental health worker with Durham Mental Health Services who visits once a week.
“It’s always going to be about offering options, empowerment, and once they become comfortable and can trust you, they can start making decisions and feel better about themselves,” Burch says.
“Healthy people loved me until I started to love myself,” Katie says. “Until I at least started to like myself, or at least until I started to see a little glimmer of light and help because to me everything was dark.”
The court process didn’t help either.
“Going through court, which took almost two years, was almost worse in some ways than the actual experience,” Katie says.
After getting sober in April 2015, Katie went through various court dates, preliminary trials and trial for the cases involving the boyfriend and his friend who trafficked her out west, and the client who abused her, and kept her confined in his apartment.
“It’s not a fun experience for anyone to go through, let alone a victim of human trafficking because they have to relive everything that happened,” says Det./Sgt. Ryan Connolly, the head of the Durham Regional Police Human Trafficking Unit. “They have to discuss it on the stand in an open courtroom, and they have to be cross-examined by a defence lawyer who is extremely well-trained in cross examination and that’s their job, to discredit the victim.”
Going in, Katie knew it was going to be rough, she knew it was going to be revealing and humiliating, and she knew she would have to face her trafficker once again. Of course, there was a screen between the two of them, but knowing that he was in the same room was enough to be a trigger. However, even knowing all of this, she felt she still wasn’t prepared for how brutal the court process was going to be.
“There was a lot of sugar coating, and I think it was to protect me,” she says. “Sitting up on that stand in the trial, being called a liar, being told you made all this up, you enjoyed it, you’re a whore, all these things happening that it was too much and my brain shut down and I disassociated,” she says.
For that reason, the crown attorneys pulled her rights to continue and saved her from further trauma.
In the end, in the case of her boyfriend, he’s actually still wanted by police, and no longer believed to be in Canada. The case against his friend never made it to trial. The client who kept her confined was given a six month peace bond and acquitted.
In human trafficking cases, this result is more common than many people think.
According to information from the Integrated Criminal Court Survey, in completed human trafficking cases where human trafficking was the most serious offence, 60 per cent of cases resulted in a decision of stayed or withdrawn. Recent studies have made the connection between the challenges of prosecuting human trafficking cases, leading prosecutors to often proceed with other complementary, or less serious charges. With that said, those who are eventually charged, about two-thirds of them will face jail time.
To make the court process easier on the victims, there are organizations springing up to provide much needed mental, and even physical support for survivors of human trafficking when they enter the courthouse.
Ryan Shanks is an assistant director with Men Ending Trafficking, a group dedicated toward raising awareness and getting men involved in the solution of ending human trafficking.
One of the organizations main focus is court support, where a group of volunteers will attend court along with the survivor, offering any support that’s needed, especially if the survivor is forced to come face to face with her trafficker.
“We train the men on being a physical barrier against intimidation or threats of any kind because a lot of the time, these traffickers, they have a lot of control over these girls for a long time. Even if they’ve been apart for a year or two, it doesn’t take much for him to get into her head again,” he says. “There’s a regression that takes place, and so, when there’s four or five guys standing between her and him, he’s not able to do that,” he says. “A big part of what we’re doing, showing them that men can care for them, love them, and help them in the right way, does a lot to heal that damage and it opens them up to taking the chance with others.”
Shanks has been with the organization for about a year, and he says he’s seen the power and the catharsis that can come from survivors standing up to their traffickers and completing the court process, as hard as it can be.
“It’s a really difficult thing for them to go through, but it’s an absolutely necessary part of their recovery. It’s a part of stepping out of that life and into a new life,” he says. “You can actually see it, physically on their faces, from before the trial to after, you can tell that they’ve changed inside.”
It’s a change that everyone working in the social services field would like to see. A change that creates hope, not just in the social workers who help victims of human trafficking, but hope in the survivor.
Hope that one day they can see a future where they are strong, a future where they are living for themselves, and one where they’ve come to terms with their trauma and can make a better life for themselves.
For Katie, she knows all about that part of life as well.
In the fourth and final instalment of this series on human trafficking, The Express looks to the future. What can be done to stop human trafficking at the source? Is it about changing attitudes towards women? Raising more awareness? Education? Are all of these initiatives receiving the funding and support they need from all levels of government? Part 4 will also give readers the final piece of Katie’s story, and where she is now.
BEHIND THE WRITING
By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
At the end of the day, everyone wants the Hollywood ending.
In Katie’s case, the perfect ending would be to see these men cuffed and led away to spend years behind bars for what they did to her.
However, as officers have told me, getting that result can be extremely difficult, and generally the traffickers will go down on different charges, whether its for drugs or guns, or some other thing. Either way, for the police, it gets the guy off the street and away from the women whose lives he’s been ruining.
For Katie, she didn’t get that result, but she told me she still sees the process as a victory.
“It’s a win because I don’t live that way anymore, and even though I didn’t get the results, the guilty, I know what really happened to me,” she tells me.
I admit, I wanted for her to be able to tell me that these guys ended up in jail. After sitting with her and hearing her entire story, I wanted that Hollywood ending, Katie deserves that ending.
Yet, life is not like the movies, and we need to push forward, and leave the past behind.
For this third portion, I knew I wanted to focus a lot on the court process, as I’d been told from several sources, and then confirmed when I sat down with Katie, that it can be worse sometimes than the crime itself.
For me, I’m not sure what the solution would be. Measures are being taken to further separate survivors from their abusers during testimony, but if a survivor takes the stand, they still have to face a defence lawyer, whose job it will be to try and poke holes in her traumatic story. There’s no getting around that.
While there may not be much to change, I still felt that this part of the story needed to be highlighted, not just for information purposes, but to once again highlight the different branches of this awful crime. If there was no human trafficking, there would be no traumatized survivors taking the stand to be torn apart emotionally by lawyers.
It’s great what Ryan Shanks and Men Ending Trafficking are doing to support survivors through the court process, but I’m sure even Shanks would gladly step back if there was zero need for such a service.
This portion of the series is arguably one of the most important. As knowing how to support these survivors once they’re out of the trade needs to be a priority for social agencies and governments across Canada.
Because while we may not immediately be able to stop the incessant nature of human trafficking, we can at least save these women and with the proper help, allow them to take their lives back once they’ve escaped.