No quick solution for survivors of sex trafficking, expert says

Survivors of human trafficking have complex needs that need to be addressed immediately and trauma that can take years to heal, head of Victim Services says.

Victims need short, medium and long-term support to help them heal and deal with their trauma

Marisa Thorburn was the head of London police victim services for 15 years. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

CBC reporter Kate Dubinski spent time with the London Police Service's human trafficking unit in December. This is another story in Kate's series, Knock at the Door.

About ten times a year for the last few years, Marisa Thorburn and her staff have had to help survivors of sex trafficking. 

What they've learned is that the needs of those survivors are basic — and also very complex. 

"You can't just set them up with community supports right away. It's a different type of intervention. They walk out of that situation, often with just the clothes on their back," said Thorburn, who headed the London Police Service's victim services branch for 15 years, until she left to work at a non-profit in December. 

"You have to find out what the basic needs are. They haven't been eating properly, they have no ID, they've had no contact with family members or friends. There are a lot of immediate needs that need to be taken care of." 
A hotel hallway near Hwy. 401 during a vice probe, a tactic police officers use to find possible victims of human trafficking. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Often, the survivors been shipped up and down Hwy. 401, forced to sell sex by pimps who rule by fear. Many of the women and girls are addicted to drugs or alcohol. 

Although men and boys are also victims of sex trafficking, the vast majority of victims are female, police say. 

Number of survivors increasing

To find victims of human trafficking, London police go undercover as Johns after answering advertisements on websites popular with escorts. They look for women they think could be doing the work against their will and, if the woman wants to leave the sex trade, help her do so. 

"There's an element of violence, and the victims are very scared. You have to safety plan with them," said Thorburn. "Sometimes you have to get them out of the city and back to somewhere safe.

"Quite often they're taken from their hometowns, purposely, because they don't know the environment here, they don't have contacts here, and that makes them more vulnerable. It makes it more difficult to get them out of the situation." 

'It's going on in our backyard'

People don't realize how prevalent human trafficking is in London, Thorburn said. 

"I don't think we were aware of just how prevalent it was until the human trafficking unit started doing some surveillance. It's going on in our backyard." 

The number of victims has steadily been increasing as the human trafficking unit makes contact with sex workers, she said. 

What's best for the victim?

The practice for those who work with victims is to get them into counselling. But that's not always the best course for survivors of human trafficking, Thorburn said. 

"Generally, it takes time. You have to try to get a feel for what those basic needs are, and just continue reassurance," she said. "Every situation is different, so you have to figure out what's best for that victim." 

Thorburn organized a two-day long human trafficking conference in November for organizations in the city that might deal with victims. They received psychological first-aid training from Dr. Jacqui Linder, who works with survivors of human trafficking. 

Thorburn also spearheaded a move to put together a one-stop-shop for resources that can be accessed by community agencies for victims of human trafficking, from transportation, medical care, employment help and legal help, for example. 

'It's very complex'

Sometimes, prosecuting a pimp might not be the best thing for the victim, she added. 

"It's very complex. These women have been traumatized. A lot have PTSD. There's no quick and easy solution for them. They need short, medium and long-term supports to help them along," Thorburn said. 

"The charges are important...charging the pimps is important but the priority is helping the victims involved in this." 

Thorburn's community directory for victims is set to be ready in March. 


Kate Dubinski


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