First human trafficking conviction in Toronto

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Tyrone Burton, 30, was found guilty of eight human trafficking-related charges, which include trafficking, exercising control, receiving material benefits and withholding identification documents.

Our Human Trafficking Specialist, Michele Anderson, was in court recently to hear the Toronto Police achieve its first ever human trafficking conviction. She was there to support the two young local victims who testified through the lengthy and difficult legal proceedings.

Michele, who has worked with victims of sexual exploitation for over 20 years, says the victims in this case, like the many she has seen, are severely traumatized by these horrific crimes and require long-term support to help rebuild their lives. They have received care and counseling at Covenant House Toronto.

Burton was accused of controlling their movements, forcing the young Toronto women, 19 and 21, to prostitute themselves and keeping all their earnings for several weeks. They managed to escape and contact police. Michele says she was gratified that justice was done for these young women.

Shortly after Burton’s conviction, Toronto Police made eight arrests in connection with another large sexual human trafficking and prostitution ring that has exploited girls 14 to 17 years old. It appears that momentum is growing around bringing these predators to justice.

We serve about 12 youth who have been trafficked every year, but Michele feels that it is “the tip of the iceberg”. “Homeless youth would be some of the most vulnerable to be trafficked. They are without support and they’re on the street, and the traffickers know this,” Michele explains. “They will befriend them much like a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, and within a short time the trafficker is making demands on the girl. There’s a lot of violence involved and control,” she says.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair is a passionate proponent of giving youth involved in human trafficking the supports they need to move forward. Chief Blair recently spoke out at a gathering of Covenant House supporters about the need to support young victims of human trafficking in Toronto.

Over his many years in service, starting out as a “beat cop”, he has seen how young people who get involved in sex work are often exploited and victimized. As a community leader today, he is interested in how enforcement, in partnership with community organizations like Covenant House Toronto, can improve the lives of the young people ensnared in prostitution and human trafficking.

“The overwhelming majority of kids living on the street are not out there because of any choice that they made. Circumstances in their lives have forced them onto the street. And put them out there in an incredibly vulnerable position,” Chief Blair explained. “I will tell you that those who are involved in the sex trade are incredibly vulnerable to violence and to death. Our responsibility is to keep the most vulnerable people in our society safe.”

Chief Blair shared that police see the dangers that homeless youth confront each day. “When you’re out there on the street with them, you can see the risk that they face. You can see that there are predators circling at the bus station, over in front of the all-night restaurants and coffee shops, looking for opportunities to harm these kids and to take them into a life of exploitation,” he explained.

Executive Director Bruce Rivers also spoke about the need for all of us to do more to support youth who are being exploited. He estimates about 30 percent of the youth the Covenant House Toronto serves has engaged in some kind of “survival sex”, which includes trading sex for money, food or shelter.

“Too many of our young people that we see have suffered this type of experience. There’s a striking pattern to it all—the initial seduction, the attendant shame, the entrapment, the confusion, the eventual violence and other erosions of the spirit. What we’ve learned over the years, though, is that there is a way forward,” Rivers said.

The needs of these youth are very complex. They are among the most damaged and they require compassionate, specialized care to recover from trauma they have experienced. They also require more transitional housing options in the community with comprehensive, specialized wrap-around support.

Over the past three decades, we have opened our doors to hundreds of homeless youth who have been exploited. More than just a place to stay, we provide them with comprehensive services, including counselling, health care, education, employment assistance, job training and housing support.

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