Luring of girls into sex trade reaching 'epidemic' level, police say
In 5 years, police have seen 1,100 cases, assisted nearly 300 victims in Toronto
It was an incident at a party that was the last straw for Rhonelle Bruder.
At 17, she saw the man who had been trafficking her physically assault another young woman in front of multiple people.
"I realized even if he was to do this to me, if he was to kill me in this very moment, no one would do anything, no one would flinch," said Bruder, who now heads a program that assists vulnerable youth.
"To me that was a point when I realized, 'I have to get out of here because my life is in danger.'"
Bruder made that decision 20 years ago. But for police and activists at the forefront of the fight against human trafficking, it's a problem that continues to grow.
And for many victims like Bruder, their stories begin at home.
A couple of years before that party, Bruder was living in London, Ont., with her older sister and adoptive parents. She says growing up she experienced a lot of bullying, which put her in a dark place.
I felt I met somebody that wanted to protect me.— Rhonelle Bruder
"I never really felt like I belonged there, it never felt like home," Bruder said. At a point where she felt like she couldn't take it anymore, she ran away.
"I thought that I could kind of run away from my problems, start fresh somewhere new. I ended up in downtown Toronto."
Bruder stayed with friends and then found transitional housing. But she was in a vulnerable position — and that's when she was approached by a woman who said she could find her work, and help her save for a condo.
That woman eventually led Bruder to the man who would be her trafficker.
"I didn't know the language of human trafficking at that age, but I felt I met somebody that wanted to protect me," she said.
"So when the topic came up of working in the sex industry — dancing, working in strip clubs — it was an opportunity for me to save money, have all the nice things you want in life. I was a kid so I was like, 'Okay, this is what I have to do.'"
The now 36-year-old says she realized almost immediately she didn't want to be involved in that work but felt trapped, unsafe and almost as if she was indebted to the woman who recruited her.
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"I felt like to leave would be to betray them."
Bruder never saw the money she was promised. She said she was given just enough to survive. After witnessing the assault at the party, she contacted people she'd met before she was trafficked and planned her escape.
"I basically disappeared," she recalled.
Bruder calls herself lucky for having the support she did. At the time she left, she was completely disconnected from her family.
Victims as young as 12
The Toronto Police Service established the Human Trafficking Enforcement Team back in 2014. Today, there are 18 investigators in the group.
Det. Sgt. Nunzio Tramontozzi says the number of offences and occurrences since the team's launch has increased dramatically.
"It's really at an epidemic proportion now in Toronto, and really throughout the GTA and across Canada," Tramontozzi said.
"We have victims as young as 12 years old being forced into the sex trade ... even with the number of investigators I have right now, we're not keeping up."
Last year, the team investigated 280 cases and arrested around 55 people for trafficking women and girls into the sex trade. Since the team was formed, police say they have investigated more than 1,100 cases and assisted close to 300 victims.
Tramontozzi says there is no set demographic of victims or suspects.
"Victims come from all walks of life — they do come from marginalized communities, but also from families that have influence in the community."
Tramontozzi has seen cases where traffickers lure girls through social media apps like SnapChat and Instagram, but also in person at places like malls, group homes and even Canada's Wonderland.
"The one thing they do have in common is they are master manipulators," he said.
Police say they're still seeing a trend toward females doing the recruiting, as in Bruder's case, "especially in middle schools and high schools."
Education is key
Advocacy groups in Toronto have declared May 10 as Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
Ena Cord, the chair of the Human Trafficking Committee with the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Toronto, has organized a panel discussion to heighten awareness on the issue.
"The response has really been quite amazing," Cord said, noting that attendance has increased dramatically from the first time they put on this event three years ago.
Friday's event is at the North York Civic Centre and begins at 11 a.m. ET. It's free and open to the public. Cord says the more people know that this is happening in their backyards, the more that can be done to prevent it.
"It's still escalating, it really is. I don't know that it's getting better and that's really disheartening," she said.
"But I also think that because there is so much more awareness of it, that people are hearing more and more about it."
Education is now a key piece for Bruder, too. She says she still lives with her experiences and has to put effort into taking care of her mental health.
But now, she's using her experience to help vulnerable youth through her program the RISE Initiative. Many of the young people she works with have experienced homelessness, abuse and some are also survivors of trafficking.
She's created skills-based workshops hoping to help teens learn and heal.
"We have to arm kids with what human trafficking looks like, what are the signs," she said.