KNOCK AT THE DOOR

'He took every penny I made,' human trafficking survivor says

For eight years, Caroline Pugh-Roberts was forced to dance in strip clubs in cities along highways 402 and 401.

A survivor of human trafficking now speaks to other women and teenagers in high schools about the risks

Caroline Pugh-Roberts was forced to work in strip clubs along Highways 402 and 401 for years. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

CBC reporter Kate Dubinski has been speaking with the people trying to shine a light on the very real problem of human trafficking in London. This is another story in Kate's series, Knock at the Door.


For eight years, Caroline Pugh-Roberts was forced to dance in strip clubs in cities along highways 402 and 401. 

The man she thought of as her boyfriend at the time eventually took away her ID, isolated her from friends and family, and limited the amount of food she ate. 

"He was my world. I was only alive because of him. I was unaware that there were social service agencies. I never had to use them before. In my mind, (stripping) was all that I could do," Pugh Roberts said this week. 

"I thought I was in love." 

It took several attempts over two years to escape. Once, she went to a shelter for domestic violence survivors, but it was full. Another time, she lost her spot at a shelter because she was sick in hospital. 

Both times, she went back to the man who was forcing her to dance in strip clubs, as well as perform other sexual services for money. 

"There were no resources and there still aren't really. We need a shelter for sex trafficked women," she said. 

Training for police important, survivor says

Pugh-Roberts didn't think of her boyfriend as her pimp. She didn't think of herself as trafficked. 

But looking back, she said she had one interaction with a London police officer that could have made a difference. 

"When I had that one interaction with a police officer, I didn't have anywhere to go back to, I hadn't eaten, I had the clothes on my back. If he'd been trained at the time, I bet he could have seen the red flags," she said. 

Police officers now have more training than they had even a year ago when it comes to spotting sex trafficking. 

Now, since 2016, London has a dedicated police human trafficking unit. 

Those officers speak with sex workers they suspect are being trafficked. For them, Pugh-Roberts has advice: 

"Don't ask a woman if she is trafficked. Don't use that word. Ask, 'are you eating enough?' or 'Is someone hurting you?' or if they know where the local Shoppers or Tim Hortons is. Usually people know where those places are if they live in a city," she said. 

Trafficked women and girls are often taken from city to city and forced to sell sex. That keeps them isolated from support networks and makes getting away difficult, police and experts say. 

What does a healthy relationship look like?

These days, Pugh-Roberts makes presentations at high schools, warning young women about boyfriends who court them and shower them with gifts, and then ask them to perform sexual acts — a common recruitment tool by pimps looking to hook young women into the sex trade. 

"I came from a home where I was sexually assaulted at an early age, and so I already thought my body was for the taking. A lot of these girls come from homes where sexual assault and abuse are rampant. I talk to them about healthy relationships and how if (a boyfriend) shouldn't ask you to do something you're not comfortable with," she said. 

She also speaks at London's John school where men busted for buying sex — which is illegal in Canada — get sent for early intervention. 

"I try to humanize the women," she said. "I hope I can reach at least one guy in there." 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.