Simone Bell grew up in a middle class family in a nice home with family that loved her. She wasn’t the kind of person most would expect to end up the victim of human trafficking.
But it happened to her.
Just before she was set to go to college a series of events conspired to put her in a precarious situation with a dangerous man who would threaten her and her family ply her with drugs and force her into selling sex.
Now in her 30s Bell works at Voice Found as a survivor outreach manager and educates the public about human sex trafficking how to prevent it and how to support those who have survived (or are surviving) exploitation.
“It can happen to anybody” Bell said at a special awareness seminar in Haliburton on Friday April 27 organized by MPP Laurie Scott and Kawartha/Haliburton Victim Services.
“We don’t need to have vulnerabilities like poverty child sex abuse growing up in care in order to be trafficked. Our vulnerabilities are the things we hold nearest and dearest to us. Our vulnerabilities can also be things like our dreams” she said.
Traffickers can threaten family or promise riches or opportunity to lure would-be victims.
Throughout the session which included presentations from KHVS and the Ontario Provincial Police victims of trafficking were identified as female though speakers noted that boys and men are also exploited in this way though their numbers are fewer.
Bell said that she was dating a “bad boy” in high school who ended up landing in jail for firearms possession. She got a call from a friend of her boyfriend who told her that the guns were his and that Bell was on the hook for the debt.
At the time she was living at home in Kanata with her mother father and her three brothers.
When she told the man she would not pay the debt she said he beat her. He told her that she would have to sell sex to pay him back.
“He said to me I know that your dad works away from home. I know where you live. I know that you have three little brothers. I know where they go to school. I know where the oldest one has a part-time job. I know what skate park they skate at after school and I know they play baseball. So if you don’t do what I’m telling you to do I’m going to hurt your family” she said.
Bell considered telling her parents but said the beating she took convinced her that he was violent and determined to carry out his threats against her family.
On top of that she felt responsible. If she told her parents her father would have to quit his job which frequently took him away from home. She blamed herself for the situation she was in and decided not to involve them.
After staying home for a few days one of the man’s friends arrived at her home unexpectedly. She hadn’t given them her address.
“He was proving things to me” she said including that he’d done the research on her life.
They told her to pack a bag and get in the car. From there things rapidly devolved. The people who took her confiscated her identification cards her credit and bank cards. She was forced to give them her PIN for her bank card and passwords to social media and email.
She was taken to a rundown part of Ottawa to an apartment above a laundromat.
“When I got into that apartment it was him and a group of his friends. When I was in that apartment I was sexually assaulted by the group of them. In human trafficking this is what we call the breaking process” she said.
“Right after that I was sent downstairs to this really gross laundromat where I saw my first John or my first client.”
Bell worked in Ottawa Kanata Niagara Falls Toronto Montreal for what she called “a very long period of time.”
Throughout she was fed opiates more than she was given food and was working about 18 hours a day.
“Can you imagine trying to fight back if you’d been fed drugs you’re not eating you’re not sleeping and you’d been abused all day? You wouldn’t even know what was really going on.”
Throughout Bell’s parents knew she was addicted to drugs but they didn’t know the whole story. She lied to them about what was going on and was “combative” when they asked.
When she tried once to run away her trafficker used his access to her email to send out a fake website with sexual photos of her to more than 400 people in her address book.
“I was embarrassed. I was ashamed” she said. “Do you think that everybody in my life saw this … and went ‘must be a victim of human trafficking. Let’s go help her?’ No. Everybody assumed ‘she has an addiction. She’s selling her body to pay for her habit.’”
She went back.
Bell didn’t go into the details of how she freed herself of her trafficker other than to note that he was involved in gun and drug trafficking. While he was in jail she was able to get away. He has since died.
A year and a half went by and she got a call from a friend who had taken a course on human trafficking. The course included information about how traffickers will blackmail their victims with photos of them. She remembered the email sent from Bell’s account years before.
The friend called Bell and asked her to meet up to talk about what had happened to her. It was the first time anyone had framed it that way.
“Nobody had ever said that to me before. Everybody always made me feel ashamed embarrassed. I was a sex worker. I was dirty. I had done this to myself” she said.
What she needed was someone to show compassion and to tell her she wasn’t at fault and she wasn’t alone.
Human trafficking is a growing industry with 45.8 million victims worldwide. While it can happen to anyone having certain vulnerabilities can make victimization easier for traffickers who target youth those without family connections with emotional needs or who are in poverty.
Over the last several years local MPP Laurie Scott has done extensive research and advocacy on the topic of human trafficking including introducing a private member’s bill that gave survivors additional tools to overcome what has been done to them. Her bill was drawn upon by the Liberal government when they introduced their legislation the Anti-Human Trafficking Act.
One of the messages Scott repeats is that everyone needs to be vigilant to protect young people against this kind of exploitation. Traffickers will sometimes use social media to lure youth away from their homes and then use any number of tricks to force them into sex work including using threats shame sexual abuse debt or blackmail.
And more than 90 per cent of those trafficked in Canada are from Canada.
A detective constable from the Kawartha Lakes OPP Crime Unit who asked that his name be withheld from publication spoke to the audience on Friday about how police have had to change tactics to identify and assist victims of trafficking. Frequently the women will claim that they are self-employed as sex workers or that they’re not being coerced. They also feel strong loyalty to their traffickers for various reasons.
“These girls live in a constant state of fear. The mental bond between the victim and the trafficker is probably one of the strongest that I have ever seen in my career” he said.
While the police want to get information quickly the officer said they have to take their time and build trust with the girls. The best way to do that is often to help them escape provide stability and then they might be more trusting.
To help these women get help Kawartha/Haliburton Victim Services has developed an anti-human trafficking program which was outlined by a victim advocate during the meeting.
Using $23000 in provincial funding the organization has supported 35 victims and 27 victims’ family members since December of 2016.
They offer counselling tattoo removal residential treatment dental care shelter arrangements and transportation emergency exit kits safety planning and accompaniment.
In addition the Victim Quick Response Program provides money to cover expenses related to travel safety residential treatment counselling and other practical items such as food and toiletries.
Money frequently goes to basic things that most people take for granted for example food dental care eye glasses a cellphone or identification cards. Traffickers confiscate personal documents and often track their victims’ calls so new phones are required.
The program pays for tattoo removal because victims are sometimes branded by their traffickers.
Residential treatment is offered because traffickers will often control their victims using drug addiction.
Asked by members of the audience how many victims of trafficking were in the Haliburton County area the detective said “not zero.”