Signs your child may be involved in sex trafficking — and what to do

Don’t think your child is at risk of falling prey to sex traffickers?
Think again, experts say.


Recognize the Signs

Experts agree there are classic signs that might indicate someone you know is being sexually exploited. Here are some changes that might indicate your child is involved in sex work, or “the game”:
• Isolating themselves from their usual friends and family;
• A new partner they’re keeping secretive;
• Not coming home as often as they used to;
• Being more private and secretive than usual;
• Looking more “dolled-up” than usual (hair, nails, new clothes);
• Increased, unexplained money and gifts;
• Using language associated with the game
(i.e.: “daddy” = pimp, “stable” = organization).

Who to call

If you are a victim or suspect your child or someone you know is being sexually exploited, call the Ottawa Police Service’s Human Trafficking section at 613-236-1222 ext. 5005. Anonymous tips can be submitted by calling Crime Stoppers toll-free at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS), or by downloading the Ottawa Police app.

Victims in need of services can also reach out to the Ottawa Coalition to End Human Trafficking at 613-769-6531, or

Educate yourself

To learn more about domestic and international human trafficking:
• Ottawa Coalition to End Human Trafficking
• PACT-Ottawa
• Department of Justice
• Public Safety Canada /index-en.aspx
• RCMP Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre

14-year-old Amy* (name changed to protect privacy) was a bright girl who excelled in school, came from a good single-parent home, and was on her way to university on a scholarship.

But Amy soon fell into prostitution, lured by a man 10 years older, who she thought was her boyfriend.

“She really loved this man, and believed he was her boyfriend,” says Kayla Charlery of the Ottawa Coalition to End Human Trafficking. “It’s the classic script pimps use to recruit their victims.”

Human sex trafficking — in which victims are coerced or forced to prostitute themselves — is a real and serious problem in Ottawa, and local experts say parents need to realize that yes, even their kid is at risk.

And young girls are particularly vulnerable.

“Sure, there are some factors that make certain groups more vulnerable than others, but age is the biggest factor of them all,” says Charlery, adding young girls are prized because they can easily earn up to $1,000 per day for their pimp.

Classic script

Amy had been like any typical 14-year-old girl: discovering herself, receiving attention from the opposite sex, and coming into her body as she learned to navigate feelings, insecurities and relationships.

In other words, she was a prime target for the older man, who, in little time, convinced Amy to sell herself to men of all ages, all in the name of love.

“This guy was loving on her, talking her up, buying her gifts and making her feel real special,” says Charlery.

Parents need to realize that most kids recruited into the sex trade are not initially forced in, says Charlery; they are coerced under the boyfriend/girlfriend ruse, as the pimp convinces her that selling herself for sex is the easiest way to quickly earn money for their future together.

Young girls already involved in the sex trade also play a large role in recruiting other girls, and do so in order to gain status and favour.

And sometimes, the young girls decide to pimp out their peers.

In 2012, a then-15-year-old Kailey Oliver-Machado forced girls as young as 13 to perform sexual acts with adult men.

Oliver-Machado was eventually sentenced, as an adult, to six-and-a-half years in prison.

“This girl was tough and violent, and portrayed herself as someone who was older,” says Ottawa Police Detective Kelly Lyle.

“These young female victims thought they knew this other 15-year-old girl and met up with her because they felt they were safe.

“One of the girls even brought her teddy bear-PJs because she thought she was going for a sleepover.”

A July 2014 report titled Local Safety Audit Report: Towards the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons and Related Exploitation in the Ottawa Area, says human sex trafficking is happening in the Ottawa area and that, contrary to popular belief, victims are not predominantly from Eastern Europe or Asia. In fact, out of the 140 sex trafficking victims the researchers identified, 90-per-cent were Canadian and from the area.

Even scarier for parents: many of the identified victims were youth between the ages of 12 and 25, with 16-year-olds being most vulnerable to being recruited into the sex trade. Because of their age, youth were typically trafficked within homes or at private parties in order to avoid detection.

The findings challenge the public perception that sexual exploitation mainly takes place in brothels run by foreign gangs that control foreign women.

In October 2013, Ottawa police launched a special team to help fight human trafficking in the region. In just over two years, the team has identified 43 victims under the age of 18 and laid over 300 criminal charges related to human trafficking investigations.

“It’s always troubling when you’re dealing with underage victims,” says Sgt. Jeff Leblanc, who leads the team’s four detectives.

“We’re still learning just how far-reaching (human trafficking) is in our community.”

Leblanc says technology, namely the Internet and smartphones, plays a big role in how pimps recruit their victims.

To help protect their kids, he says parents need to know what applications their kids are using, and what those programs can be used for.

While Facebook and Instagram are two of the more recognizable social media applications, there are also lesser known ones like Tinder, Kik and Yik Yak.

“Parents really need to do their research and educate themselves about human trafficking,” says Leblanc. “And it’s important for parents to keep the lines of communication open with their kids.”

Awareness is key

Sister Pauline Gagne of the Sisters of Charity is the director of external affairs for PACTOttawa, as well as a social worker and high school teacher.

She agrees it’s crucial for parents to be attentive to what is happening in their kids’ lives.

“Often, pimps will further isolate their victims by threatening to send nude photos of the victim to friends and family,” she says. “So it’s important for parents to be open, understanding and involved with their children.”

Gagne spends a lot of time giving awareness talks to high school students throughout the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. And while her sessions are well-received by students and staff, Gagne says she has received some resistance from parents who are uncomfortable with the material.

“Human sex trafficking exists in Ottawa and awareness is extremely important to help fight it.”

After a long pause, she adds: “I really don’t know how to reach the parents, though.”