When an 11-year-old Toronto girl went missing for four days in September 2016, it was assumed that she was just another child runaway. However, the reality is that the Toronto elementary school student — who we’ll call Emily, to protect her identity — didn’t simply go missing: she had been sold by an older friend into the Toronto sex trafficking circuit, known as “The Game”.
The Toronto police issued a news release at the time, asking for the public’s help in locating Emily after she disappeared on the Labour Day Monday. Four days later, the public alert was terminated after she had been reported as found. There was no further information released by authorities.
As it turns out, Emily had been kidnapped by pimps, held for nearly a week, and abused. Abruptly, she was released, and left for dead, just blocks from her Toronto elementary school. She was found on the school grounds bruised, drugged and with her clothing in disarray. According to her mother, whose name is being withheld to protect her daughter’s identity, this is hardly “safe and sound”, despite what Toronto police stated at the time.
This case is not uncommon. Last year, Toronto police rescued 60 victims from sex trafficking, and officers assume countless others are still being exploited. Their ages ranged from 11 to 29, with the majority being under 16. According to RCMP data, in 2015 there were 45,288 cases of missing children in Canada.
Emily’s mother, 32, arrived at work at 7 a.m. that September morning unaware that her daughter was gone. Within minutes she found out from a colleague that Emily had been reported disappeared from her grandparents home, where she was living, and that her photo had been broadcast over the news. Emily and her brother had been placed into the care of their grandparents two months prior to her disappearance. The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) had intervened after conflict with their mother at home. Emily had also run away from home on one occasion. Her mother feels wronged by CAS and disagrees with their decision to place her children in the care of her parents.
“I would understand if you take them and put them in some place better,” she said. “But they’re too old and too sick to take care of my children.”
CAS makes it their priority to keep children in the family. If there is conflict in the immediate home, the children will be placed with any extended family able to take them in. Sharon Cabrera, supervisor of Kinship at CAS, outlines the benefits of keeping children with their family.
“Kids who are placed with family do better in school than those put into foster care,” Cabrera said. “It’s much less traumatic.”
Emily’s mother feels that CAS is partly to blame for what happened with her daughter.
“The Children’s Aid Society, the ones that put her with my parents, they made a mistake,” she said. “I hold them completely accountable.”
Nunziato Tramontozzi is the lead detective sergeant for sex trafficking cases with the Toronto Police Service. Tramontozzi heads the human trafficking enforcement team that is responsible for tracking and arresting sex traffickers throughout the entire GTA. This team was constructed in 2014 and contributed to the first ever convictions of human trafficking in Toronto, which fell under sex trafficking, in that same year. Apparently, it was on social media where Emily met the older friend who lured her into the world of sex trafficking.
“Kids nowadays, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen year olds, they tell their whole life story on that phone,” Tramontozzi said. “They’ll get on there and say ‘I feel ugly today.’”
Tramontozzi and his enforcement team know what these pimps look for in their victims. They will find a girl with low self-esteem and use it against her; paying attention to her, buying her nice things and making her fall in love with them in just enough time to manipulate her.
“What these predators do is they troll the Internet and they see this and they’ll say ‘No no, you’re beautiful,’ ” Tramontozzi said.
Pimps are driven by the lucrative profit that they can generate from these girls. According to Tramontozzi, one girl can generate $250,000 a year for a pimp. They use this promise of money to lure the girls in the first place, but later telling them they have to pay back all of the money the pimps spent on the girls during the manipulation process.
According to Toronto Police, one girl can generate $250,000 a year for a pimp.
Tools of the trade
Backpage.com is a classified advertising website similar to Kijiji. The site is divided into several sections, allowing people to buy or sell items and services. But there is controversy over the site as it is known to be connected to the exploitation of young girls and women. The “escort” section of backpage was shut down in the U.S., as a majority of sex-trafficking arrests could be tracked back to this particular website. Although not all advertisements for female and male escorts are illegal, the courts ruled that its existence created an easily accessed platform for this illegal behaviour.
This section of the popular advertising website is still open for use in Canada.
Tramontozzi and his team use backpage.com as a starting point to help them find pimps and save the girls they exploit. Authorities see the advantage of police access to this website and other websites like this as valuable and believe that if it is shut down, the police human trafficking enforcement team would be at a disadvantage. They most often looks for ads linked to hotels along the 401. This highway provides easy access for clients. According to Toronto police, some hotels along the 401 stretch from Kingston to Windsor provide a hotspot for sex trafficking in Ontario.
Getting help for victims
There are many different options for victims, all involve safety and support. Boost for Kids is a Toronto charity that is committed to eliminating abuse and violence in the lives of children and youth. It works alongside the police and often offers a safe place for victims while investigations are ongoing. Nicole Biros-Bolton is the manager at the charity’s Child and Youth Advocacy Centre (CYAC) at 890 Yonge Street. Biros-Bolton oversees trained staff who meet with children and youth when they come as a result of a police investigation.
“We provide support to children, youth and their families after a child has experienced any form of abuse or trauma,” Biros-Bolton said. “We provide support to children, youth and their families after a child has experienced any form of abuse or trauma,” Biros-Bolton said.
The services offered to victims range from therapy, support, housing and addiction services. Boost for Kids sees victims of trafficking from arrival, and services can extend to helping with the court process if the pimps have been charged. Biros-Bolton explains that some victims seek these services themselves. It is more common, however, that the CYAC and the police get involved before victims are ready to do so on their own.
“They always come willingly, it’s a voluntary service but it’s usually from the police discovering them and rescuing them from a situation,” she said. “Immediately as they’ve been pulled out of something, they’ve been [placed] in contact with us.”
East Metro Youth Services (EMYS) is another agency that dedicates its work to saving girls from sex trafficking. Carly Kalish is the chair of the Human Trafficking Intervention and Prevention Strategy (HIPS) at EMYS.
HIPS focuses its work on domestic human trafficking. Working alongside over 20 organizations, including Toronto police, HIPS spreads awareness in hopes of preventing more girls from falling victim.
Kalish doesn’t believe in using fear-based methods to scare girls into leaving The Game and rehabilitating themselves. Instead, they use trauma-based methods, teaching these girls about healthy relationships and what consent is.
“The second that somebody is scared, they’re not retaining information the same way as when they’re calm,” Kalish said. “We believe that it’s not helpful to scare people in order for them to learn about the topic.”
What to look for
Pimps call it “The Game.” But to the victims, it’s a violent, harsh reality.
Kalish has spent so much time with women and girls who have been taken by The Game that she urges families, friends and teachers to look out for the warning signs.
“You’re looking for girls who, out of nowhere, have a boyfriend. Girls who maybe, suddenly have nice things, like jewelry or new cellphones,” Kalish said.
Tramontozzi pointed out that girls with low self-esteem and lack a loving support system are more at risk than girls who are surrounded by love and affection. While these things don’t necessarily point to victims of sex trafficking and girls who are completely loved and confident can be forced into The Game as well, if there is concern, these are some signs to look for.
HIPS also works with debunking myths about The Game. Their initiatives involve equipping teachers, principals, parents and other authority figures with the reality of Toronto sex trafficking.
“We often think that it’s a stranger who is this trafficker, and it can be, but much more commonly it’s somebody that you are in a relationship with,” Kalish said. “Or with someone that has courted you, whether that’s an intimate relationship or even a friendship.”
Toronto police have acknowledged that although we often think that victims of sex trafficking come from poverty, this is not always the case. Any girl can fall into the wrong crowd and be lured by the courting and manipulations of a pimp.
Tramontozzi believes that as a parent, the best protection is to involve yourself in your child’s life. Let them know they are supported, they are loved and take the time to know where they are and who they are with. There are no standard characteristics for these young girls that get trafficked; it can happen to any child.
It is uncertain if Emily, now living outside of Toronto in foster care, would have been saved from sex trafficking had she not been placed in the care of her grandparents. Her mother, Sarah, feels her daughter was neglected; given too much freedom and not enough discipline. Although deemed an unfit mother in 2016, Sarah is fighting to get her kids back, and she now realizes that a parent or guardian should be more involved in their children’s lives. She knows that what happened to her daughter was not an isolated incident, and wants justice for her daughter and for all the other victims of sex trafficking.