The realities of human trafficking Q & A with Staff Sergeant Dale Johnson

Edmonton police Staff Sgt. Dale Johnson from EPS’s vice unit took some time to talk about human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week runs from April 18-22.

All of Johnson’s answers address sexual human trafficking and focus on Edmonton’s situation.

How does human trafficking start?

Human trafficking can start in many different ways, but what we often see are vulnerable women who are disadvantaged in various ways (lack of formal education and mainstream job prospects, alcohol or drug issues, lack of family support, or mental health issues) who fall prey to exploiters targeting women with a promise of support, love and material things. After a period of romancing, the exploiter further isolates his now “girlfriend” and takes control. He tells her that she is indebted to him for all he has done. He then essentially forces her to engage in the sex trade as a means of paying him back and supporting them both.

Where can it happen? Does it happen here in Edmonton? How often does it happen here?

Human trafficking and sexual exploitation can and does happen everywhere. It certainly happens in Edmonton, but it is difficult to quantify how prevalent it is because it occurs in the shadows. Often the women don’t recognize they are being sexually exploited and coerced into the sex trade. They are often abused, threatened, isolated and dependent on their exploiter in many ways, so they are extremely reluctant to involve police.

What are some signs of human trafficking?

Often families and friends will be suspicious but won’t know for sure what is going on.  They should follow their instincts and report the situation to police. The victim often becomes isolated and loses contact with family and friends as they fall further into the world of selling sex. Typically they will move between cities and towns, staying only a short time. They won’t usually openly admit to what they are doing but may still have expensive material possessions.

What should people do if they believe someone is the victim of human trafficking and sexual exploitation?

Refer to above, but there are numerous agencies operating in Edmonton besides the police that you can go to for education and advice. CEASE (The Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation) and ACT (Action Coalition on Human Trafficking Alberta) are but two.

How common is human trafficking and sexual exploitation in children? How can parents help protect their children?

Too often your girls and sometimes boys are recruited into the sex industry and fall victim to exploiters and human traffickers. Some children have issues with mental health, drugs, and alcohol or are immersed in the Child Services system, but certainly not all. All adults involved in a child’s life have a role to play in identifying at-risk children and ensuring they receive help prior to that child falling further “into the life”. Alberta has unique legislation (Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act) that puts the onus on adults to report suspected incidents. Child and Family Services have knowledgeable investigators to look into reports and help children trapped in these circumstances.

The EPS has seen examples of parents involved in selling sex whose children follow the same path. In the worst case scenarios, these parents have been the exploiters.

What can people do to help police and victims?

Report situations and put faith in police and other agencies that victims will receive respect and help. It is not always about charging and prosecuting the exploiter, but following the victim’s wishes. Providing education and material assistance may lead the victim to discover exit strategies and a pathway to a better future; that is a success from our perspective.

Who is vulnerable? Who is most likely to be a victim of sexual exploitation/human trafficking?

From what we see at EPS, a certain segment of the population is more vulnerable. It is often the women who are marginalized, stigmatized, or excluded from mainstream society that falls victim to exploiters, but it can happen to anyone.    

What is the best way to pass along any information of human trafficking? Is there a tip hotline? Is it anonymous?

There are different ways that information comes to EPS, such as Communications Section inquiries, patrol members, Crimestoppers tips or referrals from our non-government partners, such as CEASE, ACT or Metis Family & Child Services. If you have a question or concern you want to bring to the attention of police or the vice unit, call us at 780.421.3397 and speak with a detective.

How does the EPS help victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking?

The first priority is to offer assistance and compassion to victims. With the help of our non-government partners, we can provide services like trauma counselling, job training, and alcohol and drug treatment. In some cases we can even relocate a person back to their family and supports if they wish.   

Are victims generally afraid of retaliation if they go to the police? What does the EPS do to calm their fears?

Victims often express legitimate concerns about retaliation for going to police. They express a genuine fear about having to go to court and testify in front of their previous exploiter and just want to avoid the court process. However, we encourage victims to see it as part of their healing process and their way of ensuring that others don’t fall victim as well. The EPS, crown prosecutors and ACT all have protocols in place to make the journey through the criminal justice system as smooth as possible. There is even new legislation that would allow a complainant under these circumstances to testify in court behind a screen or via video link so she doesn’t have to see the accused.

What is EPS’s involvement with Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week?

The EPS supports the good work that happens during Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week. Any event that raises awareness on what is a serious societal concern is worthy of our support. The vice unit is a proud participant and partner organizer of this year’s April 21-22 “Collaborative Efforts for Change” conference. Many powerful topics will be discussed and the public is encouraged to attend.  

What organizations do you work closely with to help victims?

Besides the obvious organizations like the RCMP and the City of Edmonton, we are partnered with many non-profit, non-government front line agencies all geared towards eliminating the sexual exploitation of our society’s most vulnerable. CEASE, ACT, Child & Family Services, Metis Child & Family Services are but four.

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