How an Elgin County farm is helping teenage victims of human trafficking
Farmtown Canada is the only program of its kind in the country, says the executive director
It's a sunny November morning on the farm, and a 16-year-old girl sits on a bench with a cat purring against her leg.
The moment could be a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting—and it's a long way from where she was two years ago.
Starting when she was just 14, the girl—whose name can't be published because she's still a minor—was being sold for sex.
"I was first pimped out by this one guy, and at first I thought it was optional, like this was what I wanted to do," she said.
"But being 14 and under the influence, I'd quickly find out I didn't want to be there, and sadly when I found that out it wasn't optional any more."
During this time she was also using drugs, and was eventually found passed out by the side of a road.
That moment was a turning point, she said.
From there, she was brought to a rehab facility, which then connected her with Farmtown Canada.
For the past five years, Farmtown Canada has focused on helping girls who have survived human trafficking, said Kelly Franklin, the farm's executive director.
The farm helps about 150 girls a year, said Franklin. The average age is 14, but some are as young as 11.
Working with animals is a proven way to help survivors deal with trauma, she said.
"You take the focus off of the girl, and you put it onto living in the moment, being well, being grounded, being mindful, and you can get rid of some of that PTSD immediately to do some work to help support her," said Franklin.
The young trafficking survivor said spending time with animals helped her feel safe and build trust. As a result of the therapy, she said she's now living at home again and is seven months sober.
The pigs were particularly helpful, she said.
"[The pigs] are actually scared of humans, they're scared to be touched, and now the pigs will actually let me pet them which is a big thing," she said.
"It might sound stupid, but I'm scared to trust people and so are those little pigs, so it's kind of like building friendship right there."
More resources needed
Although human trafficking is a significant problem across Ontario, Farmtown Canada is the only program of its kind, said Franklin.
"There are other agencies doing work with victims, but nothing specific that is solely focused on trauma-informed human trafficking work with 18 and unders," she said.
She wants to fill the gap by expanding Farmtown throughout the province—a project that she said would require funding and buy-in from the Ontario government.
"We're speaking up to say to our government 'license it, let us test drive it, let us run the pilot, let us run the model and let us lend it to any Ontario community that would benefit from this' and even nationally," she said.
The Farmtown model has the support of Laurie Scott, MPP for Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock.
"I think more of these facilities should be across the province and across the country," she said, noting that support should be targeted at programs like Farmtown that have already demonstrated success.
"We don't need to reinvent the wheel... This is shown to work."
Alongside the expansion of support services for survivors, Scott said she also wants to see mandatory sexual assault case training for judges.
The idea, she said, would be to help survivors tell their stories, and train judges to hear them.
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The young victim of sex trafficking has a similar piece of advice for police officers: listen and try to understand.
"A teenager is a child. The best thing [the police officer] can do is understand, take a look at their situation, take a look where they came from and how they were brought up, and almost always there's a reason somebody does the things they do."
Paula Duhatschek and Kate Dubinski