A newly-funded position is making an impact in the lives of vulnerable women trying to escape human trafficking and sexual exploitation. 

The Safety Network Coordinator is working for the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE), and the position was created after the pandemic highlighted the extent of specific gaps in services for people in these dangerous situations.

“In March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, just as everything was closing down, two separate women walked into EPS police headquarters on separate occasions and asked for help while a third woman was referred by a police officer from another city,” says Kate Quinn, executive director at CEASE.

“This is highly unusual, that women would walk into the police station asking for help because they’re being trafficked,” Quinn says. “Traditionally, detectives would call me or CEASE Project STAR victim advocates, knowing that we would mobilize quickly to find safety for women in those circumstances. When the detectives called, the harsh reality was that it was the toughest time for domestic violence shelters as they tried to figure out how to negotiate the impact of the pandemic. There was one bed left in one shelter for the woman at highest risk of danger.” 

The pandemic made visible all the gaps and strains in our safety systems for women. 

“I wanted to make it sustainable. There has to be a better way to do this,” says Quinn. “What if I was sick? Or on holiday? And these urgent calls came in? We needed a more systemic response that would allow us to integrate and coordinate more quickly.”

CEASE has been responding to these needs for years, so the organization was building on a foundation of knowledge and experience. 

“When I saw a call for proposals [for the position funding] from the federal ministry of Public Safety, I called Jan Fox from REACH Edmonton and Pat Vargas, from Catholic Social Services, who sit on the Alberta Human Trafficking Task Force,” says Quinn. 

Quinn knows REACH well in regards to community safety, as well as the executive director of A Safe Place women’s shelter. She also contacted EPS detectives and asked if they’d like to be involved and they collaborated with the ALERT team.

Vulnerable women have one more line of support. | Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

ALERT is a specialized police team, made up of Edmonton Police Service and RCMP members, that conducts criminal investigations specific to human trafficking. While ALERT’s dedicated investigations have proven successful in targeting perpetrators, the Safety Network Coordinator provides a compassionate and fulsome response to survivor supports.

A key aspect of the funding proposal was the integration with law enforcement and community to improve responses to victims/survivors of sex trafficking. When the funding from the Public Safety ministry was secured, the position of Safety Network Coordinator was created.

“We know we have domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters that are almost always full and don’t have the specialized support these women need,” says Quinn. “That’s why we created the Safety Network Coordinator position.”

The individual who has been filling that position has seen first hand the impact it has on preventing vulnerable women from slipping through the cracks. It’s not an outreach position, but a doorway to wider supports and a bridge to law enforcement. This individual is remaining anonymous in this publication for safety reasons. 

“I’ve been in this position since April of 2021,” she says. “I’m not a member of law enforcement so if someone tells me something, anything that’s shared, we can have a discussion about where the survivor wants the info to go.”

The Safety Network Coordinator can connect the survivor to either law enforcement, social services or both, giving them a stronger sense of agency and control when coming out of an exploitative situation.

“I provide support throughout any investigation, but in addition, there’s no requirement that someone has an investigation or is connected to ALERT to work with me,” she says. “And that’s where the CEASE side of things comes in.” 

If someone is self-referred, she can offer support and systematic navigation to them as well as talking to law enforcement or ALERT if they’d like to report their experience. But they’re not pressured or required to do so. 

“We’re just trying to connect them to other organizations and appropriate services,” she says. “No one organization is able to do it all by themselves.”

Her position is essentially a connector role between social services and law enforcement. 

“What we’re doing is enhancing the safety network around these vulnerable clients,” says Quinn. 

The new position can fill gaps by connecting services from law enforcement and social agencies to the people who need them, across different cities, regions, and provinces.

“We want to be more sustainable, integrated, comprehensive, and coordinated,” says Quinn.

This is the work CEASE has been doing for many years that is now more appropriately resourced. 

“She is only one person and her job, primarily, is to be that first responder,” says Quinn.“The position is co-located with CEASE so she doesn’t have to do everything alone; there’s a community of expertise around her.”

The position in Edmonton is funded until March 2024 and is part of the Safer Way Out project, which is guided by lived experience and Indigenous wisdom.