Waterloo Regional Police

Human trafficking is growing in prevalence in Waterloo Region according to police. In the latest case, a 21-year-old man has been accused of exploiting a 17-year-old girl working as an escort from a Cambridge hotel. (Brian St. Denis/CBC)

The arrest of a 21-year-old Cambridge man on a human trafficking charge is indicative of a "rising crime trend" in the region, say Waterloo Region Police.

The suspect is accused of exploiting a 17-year-old girl who police allege was working as an escort in a Cambridge hotel.  Investigators say the it's only the second such case in Waterloo Region. 

Still, Det.-Const. Graham Hawkins told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris Tuesday that a combination of geography and access to major highways in Waterloo Region makes it easy for human traffickers set up shop in this area and to ply their illicit trade.

"Definitely I think we're dealing with a rising crime trend and that's going across the province," Hawkins said. 

"Up and down the [Highway] 401 corridor it definitely seems to be a crime that is growing and every jurisdiction is experiencing and obviously law enforcement working through our community partnerships is trying to combat it as best we can."

Human trafficking 'devastating' for victims

The effect human trafficking can have on a victim can be devastating, "emotionally, psychologically, mentally, spiritually," said Sara Casselman, a manager for the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region.

"The impact is similar to what other survivors of sexual violence experience. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, feeling the guilt and shame, mistrust of others ... depression, suicidal ideation," she said. 

"Traffickers often target young women who are especially vulnerable with few supports and few avenues of redress," Casselman said. "Across Canada you're looking at a lot of young indigenous women being trafficked, young women with fetal alcohol [syndrome], young women with a history of abuse in the home."

The only other time someone was charged with trafficking in Waterloo Region, there was no conviction. Victims can become attached to the person controlling them, a phenomenon known as Stockholm syndrome, said Casselman.

"Sometimes it takes a while for a survivor to actually understand the situation that they are in in terms of their attachment to their trafficker," Casselman said.

Hawkins said victims tend to typically range in age from twelve to 22.

"That's what the exploiters and traffickers are doing, they're getting a hook into these young ladies, controlling them, and just sort of filling a void or trying to portray themselves as helping them out and being that figure they can trust, when in reality they're exploiting them and taking advantage of them," he said.

"Our biggest challenge is lot of victims don't identify themselves as victims," Hawkins said. 

"A lot of times it's time and distance for that victim to get themselves away from a trafficking situation and have that time to decompress, get some support, get those community agencies involved in their lives and then we have an opportunity to work with them."