Contributors note: Today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Human trafficking is a global problem affecting people of all ages. This story is based on an interview with a mother whose daughter was trafficked in Canada. This story is raw and at times, hard to read. If you suspect trafficking, please say something. Someone’s life could depend on it.
When I close my eyes, I can still see her jumping up and down on her bed and giggling with excitement. My spunky, little baby girl whose spirit and light shone brightly as she danced around like music was always playing. She was sweet and sassy. Her giggles could be heard from every room in the house. She loved to perform and took ballerina, tap, and jazz classes. She was also a pre-competitive gymnast. She played hockey and ran cross-country, but most importantly, my girl loved her family, friends, and every single animal. She practiced her Indigenous culture, and together as a family, we attended ceremonies and prayed to the creator. We were a tight-knit family, but in the blink of an eye, her light was stolen.
It was her 16th year. I began to see this huge change in her. She became angry, isolated, secretive, and rebellious. Her behavior changed. She began to experiment with marijuana and started to associate with different types of friends. Naturally, I assumed it was because her father and I separated and she was going through growing pains of transitioning into a young woman.
One day, like any other day, she asked me to drop her off for a lunch. She had made plans to meet up with a new friend. She gave me her friend’s phone number, smiled, and walked away.
That was the moment everything changed for her – and our family.
I was to pick her up after lunch. I began texting her shortly before our meet time. She never responded. I continued to text her and call, but no response. I could feel my frustration grow. She did not follow through with our set timeline and I had been waiting…and waiting.
A few hours went by when she texted me. Apologizing, she stated her phone died,. She told me she was getting a ride home from her friend’s mom and she would text me when she was almost home. Reluctantly, I agreed. I was irritated at her lack of responsibility. But, I was very relieved – and you know how we mom’s can feel when something isn’t quite right. We think the worst.
I returned home and started working on my daily tasks. Hours passed. I hadn’t heard from her. I again began texting, but nothing. Finally, my nerves got the best of me. Around 10 p.m., I called the police. When they arrived at my home, I explained everything that had transpired that day. I gave them her friend’s name and phone number I had been given. After taking the information from me, they searched for the name and phone number. That’s when they told me they couldn’t find anyone in the system. They called it a trap line.
A trap line is an untraceable phone number you can get free online making one unable to find the location of the phone. They told me not to worry, assuring me would likely show up or call within the next couple of hours.
It was midnight. While scrolling my daughters Facebook page, I noticed a new picture. She was wearing different clothing – a dress and high cut boots I had never seen before. I zoomed in close. Through the reflection of the window, I could see a big tower. It was then I remember feeling like something wasn’t right. Right away I could tell she was in a hotel room in downtown Toronto. I immediately called the police back, They returned. I showed them the picture. They took a photo of it and they told me they would follow up and be in touch soon.
It was the longest hours of my life.
The phone rang. I jumped up to grab it thinking it was the police. But, to my relief and shock, it was my daughter. “Hi, Mom,” she said. Right away, I began asking, where she was. She responded by telling me she was sorry for everything,. “Mom,” she said. “I know I treat you like the worst mom in the world. You’re really the best and the only one that’s always been there for me.”
She was crying, and I was terribly frightened. I asked her to tell me where she was or I was calling the police. Her response was one I will never forget…
“It’s going to be too late, Mom. I will likely be dead by then, and nobody will find me.”
I began to cry hysterically. I told my daughter her words were scaring me. I begged her to tell me who she was with and where she was. That when she said, “It’s Ok, Mom. Please be ok…”
The phone went dead. She had hung up.
I called the police immediately and shared our heart-wrenching conversation. They contacted the Toronto police to begin the process of finding her location by the picture on Facebook. I began texting the phone number she called from, telling the unknown caller the police knew their name, have their phone number, and knew their location and were looking for my daughter. I told them they had better bring her back home.
A few long and heartbreaking days went by. Like any mother would be, I was at wit’s end. Then suddenly, my daughter walked in. She never said a word. She walked right by me into the bathroom and took a shower. With shaking hands, I picked up the phone, and I called the police. They sent someone over right away. The Detective asked my daughter if she would come with her to the police station to talk. I stayed at home until I received a call asking me to come down.
It was there that my life had crumbled into pieces.
I was introduced to a female employee from the Human Trafficking Unit. She took me into a room and showed me a computer site called backpage.com. In front of me were photos of my daughter in sex advertisements and photos of her in lingerie, posing in sexual positions. But what broke me the most were her eyes. My daughter had the most haunting look, almost like she had died.
My heart sank. I felt sick to my stomach and began to cry uncontrollably. I remember shaking my head back and forth, thinking, ”Who could ever do this,? Who could ever hurt a child like this? Why would any man buy a girl and do this to her? Why?” It didn’t make any sense.
I was told bits and pieces of her experience. She had met a female from Facebook. This new friend invited her to a party in the city. My daughter was 16. I suppose she felt it would be cool to hang out with an older friend and go to a city party. It was then my daughter was introduced to a man in his 40’s. He was a pimp. She was drugged, raped, and forced to work.
To this day, my daughter has shared very little with me about her experience other than there were drugs and a weapon involved. She was not supposed ever to come home.
I can remember and share with you that as a parent during this time, I have never felt so helpless, so devastated, lost, shocked, and more alone in my entire existence. I just kept thinking that stuff like this does not happen. It’s madness. People can’t be this cruel in the world. I recall sleepless nights laying there with this horrible nightmare rolling through my mind seeing my daughter’s pictures and the men she might have come across. I often tortured myself with how she must have been feeling and thinking at that moment. She must have been terrified, silently calling for me. Did she suffer pain? I truly thought this only happened in the movies. It was so surreal. How could men buy and sell these young people? How? It made me sick and pretty much drove me to the madness I still live with today.
To this day, I can still remember her eyes.
When a parent is going through this with her child, the parent must be supported and given resources to help get through this heartbreaking nightmare. I carried an enormous amount of guilt, shame, remorse, and blame. It was those in the system that swore to protect and fight for justice from the bad guys that made me feel worse. They not only made me question my ability to be a good parent, but they also made me feel shamed, mocked, criticized, and judged, to the point that I began to lose sight of the truly wonderful parent and human I had actually been.
I’ve witnessed so much re-victimization not just to myself, but to my daughter from those front-line workers. However, not all professionals are the same because we were gifted with some of the best at what they do. To them, I will forever be grateful for all of their dedication and hard work. You are dear to me for everything you have done.
I’d like to remind those working closely with victims and families, please keep in mind these families have been devastated, destroyed, shaken by these events. They have endured so much pain; they carry loads of grief, pain, fear, and loss. Parents have been robbed of their children and the child they once knew. Some may never get the opportunity to reconnect with that child. Be patient. Be kind. Let go of judgment, not just of parents, but of the victims, too.
Our family has been torn. Once a tight-knit family is now divided with anger, embarrassment, resentment, but mostly fear. Fear that any day maybe the day we get that call that our once bouncy, happy, beautiful, smiley, indigenous little girl has died. We have all taken our places not with each other, but apart from one another. This one event has crumbled a once strong and stable foundation. Rebuilding the blocks seems impossible. It is the hardest thing to grieve the loss of a child/family member that still lives. For years now, I have prepared myself for the final call, and nothing is heavier than this to carry as a parent. As the years go by, I see more and more programs being developed, but we still have a lot more to do to win the fight against human trafficking.
I knew sooner or later I had to write this article because it has become my mission, and I call it the mommy mission to share with families how easy and fast human trafficking can happen.
I know there is someone out there reading this, whispering to themselves,, “This is so horrible. It could never happen to our family.” Well, dear reader, I am here to tell you I was you, and it can happen to anyone.
Photo c. Lorna Dancey