"I will continue to remind survivors of human trafficking how powerful they are."
Karly Church from Canada is a Crisis Intervention Counsellor at a regional support service for victims of human trafficking. Karly meets with politicians and visits community centres to raise awareness of the crime and speaks openly about her experience as a victim of sexual exploitation. The school board for Durham Region has also approved a presentation given by Karly and her colleagues as part of the curriculum for all grade nine classes. They talk to 13 to 14 year olds about sex, consent and online safety and discuss the warning signs of human trafficking. Karly also teams up with the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of the regional police force, joining them on operations.
This is her story.
I started working with the police about three years ago on a scheme that's centred around bringing survivors of human trafficking together with frontline workers. Any time they meet with a potential victim, I go with them.
It's very difficult to engage and support individuals who've been trafficked because often they don't see themselves as a victim or even realise that they're being trafficked. 85 percent of my clients see their trafficker as their 'boyfriend'.
Since I started this role, there's been a 93 percent increase in the number of people who want to provide a statement or speak to the police.
The police officers arrange a fake date by phone. They go in plain clothes, show their badges and the first thing they say is that the person is not in any trouble, and they have someone outside who is independent from the police – this is me.
I go into the room alone. Anything I'm told, I can't tell the police. I make a quick disclosure that I worked in the sex trade and was exploited. When I let them know I have had similar experiences, there is a bit of a relief.
It's very difficult to talk to someone about the sex trade who hasn't been there and doesn't know how difficult it is. Imagine what it's like when policemen enter the room, you might not have any clothes on, you're anxious you may be in trouble, and there's a lot of stigma to working in the sex trade. You feel ashamed.
Hearing my story also instils a bit of hope. When you work in the sex trade, when you have been trafficked, it gets to a place where you think this is the best it's going to get.
It's lonely. You're often by yourself in hotel rooms and the only company you have is with other sex workers or the people you're having sex with.
When someone comes in and is respectful, non-judgemental and talks to you, there is hope that maybe there is a way out.
The majority of victims say they don't want to leave their situation and deny being trafficked, although all the signs are there.
If they do choose to flee, I make sure everything is set up for them. It's fundamentally unfair to ask a victim to leave their trafficker if you are unable to meet all their basic needs.
I talk about my story as often as I can. Although I went through something negative, today I get to flip it for a positive. If my story can help one other person, it's not just a heavy negative load that I need to carry around all my life, there's a purpose to it.
Not everyone who has been through such an experience would feel the same way, but my healing is through telling my story.
My early life shows some of the vulnerabilities that made me more susceptible to trafficking. It shows how quickly it can happen and can happen to anyone.
I came from a very small town, with just 1200 people. It was a seemingly normal family. Two parents, an older brother and sister, a roof over our heads, food on the table. But, like in most families, there were things going on behind the scenes that affected me growing up.
There was very little social support in my town. So, I kept things to myself. I learnt from a young age not to ask for help.
My dad was away a lot for work. He almost always had two jobs, and I never really saw him. He never came to any school events. So, in my little kid mind I thought he didn't love me. I was child number three, and I would see photos of family camping trips with my older brother and sister, but I never did this.
My mom had her own issues and was not really emotionally available. She never asked about my day or came to school events. I was a very sensitive child, very anxious. I thought I was unlovable and missed a lot of school, and began acting out, but no one noticed.
I also experienced sexual violence but did not tell anyway. I basically stopped going to school, I just didn't care. At a young age I started using drugs. They became the cure to all my problems, took away all the pain of my past and made me feel normal.
By 15, I was a full-blown drug addict and had to put something in my system every day to survive. It cost a lot of money. I had to do things in order to access those drugs usually from men, and the sexual violence continued. I would exchange sex for drugs or a place to stay. This was my life for around three years.
My family didn't see me much at that point, and my parents were going through a separation. No one noticed until finally my older sister realised something was wrong.
My family flew me to British Colombia for drug treatment, and I was clean for four months. A week before I finished, I called my dad. He said he was sorry, but the family was not going to fly me home, as they felt the appropriate support was where I was. All I wanted to do was to make my family proud.
I left treatment and within 20 minutes, I found my drug of choice and the cycle began again. Exchanging sex for drugs.
My sister then flew me to Toronto. I had never lived there before. I was clean when I arrived but within a couple of weeks, I was using again and got kicked out of the sober living house and was in a women's shelter.
I felt hopeless. I kept trying to get better and falling back to square one. I tried again and went to a detox centre but got kicked out with another girl.
I remember it was freezing cold. I only had a backpack with one change of clothes. No one would take me in, I had burnt my bridges with my family. I had no cash and no phone.
The girl I got kicked out with said I know a place where they have drugs, and they will take care of us. Drug dealers came and went, and for two days I exchanged sex for my drug of choice.
Then these two men came in and they were different from everyone else. One came over to me right away. He saw my vulnerabilities. I was an easy target. He knew I was out of place, in a new city and homeless and had a serious drug addiction.
He said what are doing here, you don't belong here. You are so beautiful. No one had been that nice to me in such a long time, so instantly I was hooked. He sat down next to me and asked me a million questions.
It felt incredibly special that for once someone noticed me and saw I was struggling. That is where it started, when he started to lure me. He asked about my life, my family, my friends, why I was not in touch with my family. He asked about my hopes and dreams for the future.
He was really gathering lots of information that he could use against me in the future, but at that moment it just felt so good that I told him everything. I even told him I had been exposed to sexual violence.
He asked me what had happened to me in my past that causes me to use drugs today.
That blew my mind, because it was the question, I had been waiting for someone to ask since I was a little girl. My family and friends had never asked me this, and he had known me just five minutes.
I knew he was a drug dealer, but I felt he was treating me like a human being. I thought he was a nice guy and genuine.
Obviously, he was looking at my basic needs that were not being met. I had not eaten or showered in days. I had no money, no phone.
He took me out of the apartment, got me food and a hotel room with my own key. He gave me a sense of safety and security. He got me my drug of choice, which was a basic need at the time.
Next day, he took me shopping and bought me clothes. He boosted my self-esteem and self-worth. He said he would take care of me and not let others hurt me.
He introduced me to his friends and gave me that sense of belonging to a family that I really wanted. Withing 48 hours, he had given me everything I was lacking.
At first, he never mentioned the sex trade. He said I would be making lots of money doing drug runs. When he started asking me to do sex work, I thought it was just to pay him back for all he had done to get me on my feet.
But he took total control, took photos of me, posted my advert. He decided how many hours I would work, how many people I would sleep with in a day and which services I would provide. He put his number on the advert and at the end of the day, he would take all the money.
It was horrific. I hated every minute of it. The majority of the time I did not know who was coming to the door or what services I was expected to provide. He was not around 24/7. Physically I could have left, the room was not locked. But his manipulation was psychological and the trauma bond he created was strong.
He was a bit violent but not too much. It was more to instil that fear in me and show me what he was capable of. His control was more psychological. For me the grooming, the luring, the manipulation is much stronger than the physical violence and I think pimps are starting to realise this.
If you get beaten up every day, especially from the beginning, you are going to run. But if you believe you are with someone who loves you, who takes care of you, meets your basic needs and has actually taken you out of a situation that was much worse, well even if you have to do things you really don't want to, you have a bed to sleep in, you are not alone, you get to eat.
We moved into three different hotels in three cities. It's quite a blur how long I was trafficked. I was lucky because detectives found me just before I was supposed to go to another province with him where his brother was a trafficker. We would have been on a plane two days later.
The police saw my advert online, saw the red flags and booked a fake appointment.
I opened the door thinking it was a client, and it was a detective, he was in plain clothes. He showed me his badge and said I am with the police and here to make sure you are safe
It was incredibly lucky.
That officer changed my life, I would not be here today if he hadn't done what he did. I did not agree to go with the officer straight away. He checked the room was safe. He asked if he could sit down and have a conversation.
It sounds bizarre, but he did everything that my trafficker did when I first met him. He did not judge me. He did not tell me that what I was doing was wrong.
He asked about my life, my family, my friends, my hopes and dreams for the future, my struggles. He started to build the relationship.
I denied I was being trafficked and said I was an independent sex worker who kept all my own money. The trafficker had told me what to say.
But there were the red flags. I had no money on me, I did not have a phone, I did not know which services had been booked. Then my trafficker called and he said the hour is up and another client was waiting.
The officer knew I was being trafficked. He gave me his number on a piece of paper from my items and said I should contact him if I needed anything.
He left my room, but the investigation continued. He spoke to the hotel staff, did more digging, found out another room had been booked in the hotel using the same phone. The traffickers were found and arrested.
I was not relieved when I was told this. I was really angry. I was screaming and crying, because they had taken away the only people who were supporting me.
After the traffickers had been arrested, the detective came to my hotel room to get me. He said, you have to leave, but don't worry, we will make sure you are somewhere safe.
He assigned me a victim service worker who got me a phone, financial support, and a bed at a drug treatment centre. She met my needs and helped me to reconnect with my family and friends. After I finished treatment, she found me a place to live.
If I had not had that support immediately, I would have gone back. The cycle would have continued.
The two men were charged. One took a plea deal. In the other case it lasted for two years. Both men were not found guilty of human trafficking offences but of lesser charges.
I have the trauma of being trafficked and the trauma of having to testify in court. It was equally difficult. To be called a liar, questioned on the stand, face my trafficker, see the photos and videos of myself in court, I was retraumatized.
The detective said to me no matter what the outcome is Karly, guilty or not guilty, this is a win for you and for us. To see where you are today compared to how I found you in that hotel room. That is a win!
When I heard that they had not been found guilty of human trafficking, I was devasted. I wanted to return to familiar behaviours, but in my head, I heard "this is still a win for us". I was 24 when I got out of it, now I'm 32.
I still have a great support network and still have bad days, but my dad now tells me how proud he is of me. We have built a strong relationship. The detective is still a part of my life too. We speak once or twice a year.
I'm now most proud of the awareness raising work I do. People do not want to believe that this is happening in their community, to their children or the friends of their children.
They need to understand that this could happen to anyone.
My biggest contribution is sharing my story. I speak to politicians and tell them about my experience and the need for a victim-centred approach. I will not stop telling my story.
The most resilient people I have ever met are those who have experienced something similar. They have the ability to bounce back and move mountains. They can change their lives and those of the people around them.
I will continue to remind survivors of human trafficking how powerful they are, how much potential they have, and what they can offer the world.