'My name is Karly': Sex trafficking victim joins police on front lines in battle against exploitation
Durham Police unit is one of first in Canada to team up with a human trafficking survivor for field operations
Warning, this story contains graphic content that readers may find disturbing.
Karly Church, 31, escaped the dangerous world of domestic sex trafficking when a police officer found her in a hotel room, and her two traffickers were arrested.
Six years later, Church now works as a crisis intervention counsellor with Victim Services of Durham Region, east of Toronto. She also teams up with Durham Regional Police detectives in the field to help underage girls and young women caught up in the heinous crime.
"I want to instill hope," Church says. "I want them to see that there is a way out, and there is the ability that they can reach any goal that they have for themselves. That you don't have to be stuck, that there are people who care."
Human trafficking is a fast-growing crime in Canada and one of the most difficult to beat.
According to Statistics Canada's latest figures, reports of the "most serious violation" of laws around human trafficking soared from a couple of dozen across the country in 2010 to 340 in 2016.
StatsCan adds that, "human trafficking is difficult to measure, due in part to its hidden nature. While there has been an increase in the number of human trafficking incidents reported by police in recent years, human trafficking remains highly underreported."
The majority of reported cases are in Ontario, and 93 per cent of the victims are female. Approximately 72 per cent of female trafficking victims are under the age of 25, and can be as young as 12 years old.
And the conditions police find victims in can be horrific.
"There are incidents with girls getting waterboarded, eating their own feces, being brutally raped," says Detective Dave Davies, who runs the Durham Regional Police Human Trafficking Unit.
"The hardest ones are the ones that are young — the young ones that have never had sex before and they lose their virginity to some John, or they end up getting pregnant. Those are real scenarios that we've dealt with."
The Durham Regional Police are one of the first in Canada to work directly with a human trafficking survivor, and they say Church is their secret weapon. With six detectives attached to the Human Trafficking Unit, most of them undercover, the police have nicknamed her Number Seven.
"She's a part of our team," says Detective Davies.
The collaboration between the Durham Regional Police Unit and Victims Services of Durham Region is about building relationships and trust with the victims. Church and Davies say it's working.
Since Church got involved, the number of local police investigations has doubled and so has the number of victims she is supporting. In 2018, Victim Services of Durham Region helped 120 human trafficking victims, and in 2019 that jumped to 240.
On a recent afternoon, Church and the detectives combed through online sex ads looking for clues leading to underage girls.
On any given day there can be anywhere from 30 to 100 new ads posted just in their region.
"You can see 22, 19, 22, they're all different ages. We're looking for younger looking females right now," Detective Davies says.
"They can kind of give us clues to where they are. So, like, Westney Road, 401, Ajax, Whitby, Oshawa. When it says 'back in town,' that means they were somewhere else," he adds, a potential sign that they're being trafficked.
"Karly helps out and gives her opinion. We work together and try and find somebody, and go talk to them."
Undercover detectives set up fake "dates" to try and meet up with the women at nearby hotels to make sure they aren't underage, and also that they aren't being forced into sex.
Often Church joins the offsite operations.
Having identified an ad that concerns the team, they all head out the door of police headquarters and meet at a nearby hotel, where the first date has been set up for the day.
These hotel operations can be dangerous. Often, the pimps are nearby in adjoining rooms or even in the room's own bathroom, and sometimes they're armed.
After the detectives establish the room number, they enter and make sure the person and the situation is safe. Church and Davies stay back until they get they get the okay to come in.
Church then works to build trust with the women.
"I think immediately if somebody comes to your door and identifies as police, it's intimidating," Church says. "Just because a lot of times it's like, 'what's going to happen to me?' And there's a bit of a panic."
This time the woman in the room has been told about Church and wants to talk to her.
Most of them do. The woman isn't underage, but she takes Church's contact information.
The police meet at a nearby parking lot for a debrief. Church is happy with the outcome:
Durham Region has a trafficking coalition consisting of community workers and organizations. They're trying to raise awareness to help discourage the crime, and they also help victims find the support they may need for addiction, housing, a bus pass and even food.
Raising awareness includes school outreach and education. Church does public service announcements to spread the word about things such as signs to look for that may indicate someone is being trafficked. She also speaks to Grade 8 and 9 students.
"My name's Karly, I'm actually a survivor of domestic sex trafficking. I had a pimp and he forced me to work in the sex trade," Church tells a group of students.
Karly was lured in by human traffickers at a time when she had nowhere to go. She'd left home, then been kicked out of a detox centre. Another girl who'd also left the detox centre persuaded Karly to go with her to a house, where she met the traffickers who drew her into the sex trade.
As the kids listen, she presents the facts on how it happened to her. She describes how traffickers prey on the most vulnerable, and can often disguise themselves as a boyfriend or someone who can be trusted.
"He is looking for someone who maybe is being bullied in school. He's looking for someone who maybe doesn't have that brand-name clothing or brand new iPhone," says Church.
Karly's presentation leaves the room silent.
What is most concerning is how many kids approach Church after her captivating presentations.
"In my experience, after every presentation I have ever done, someone has come up after and made a disclosure — either 'this happened to me,' or 'I think this is happening to me,' or 'I know someone this is happening to.' That's in 36 schools," says Church.
Kayla Yama is a clinical director of Victim Services for Durham Region, and coordinates the public presentations with Church.
She says public outreach helps reduce the stigma, encouraging people to speak up if they or someone they know is a target of sex trafficking.
Yama says there has been a "huge shift in terms of awareness" locally. She adds that it's due largely to people "coming forward to Victim Services of Durham Region, coming forward to the community, coming forward to their parents — the bravery that it takes, it astounds me every day — and saying that this happened to me. It allows people not to overlook it and say this is something that couldn't happen to my child."
Back at police headquarters, Detective Davies says the program is a success, but his team wants to do more. He's hopeful that in the near future the force can make that happen with some provincial funding. "It would help for sure.
"We have six detectives here. We have one Karly," he says, adding that he'd like a "Number Eight" to join the team to help with Church's growing workload.
Watch The National's feature about Karly Church and Durham Regional Police efforts to crack down on human trafficking:
With files from Ioanna Roumeliotis