Young men and women are sucked into sexual exploitation rings active in northern B.C., and some are never seen again.
The reach of the sex trade dragged Jessie Foster away from a stable home and loving family in Kamloops, and although she is believed to be alive, she has not been seen or heard from for the past seven years. Foster was lured and extorted into the survival sex ring over a three-year period, and despite attempts by her loved ones to pull her away, the organizers of the ring succeeded in building a communication wall around Foster. It is now so thick that she is the subject of a global search by authorities and family.
"I am the lead investigator on Jessie's case," said her mom, Glendene Grant, at a human trafficking awareness seminar in Prince George on Monday. Grant was harshly critical about the lack of police interest in the disappearance, but was encouraged by the knowledge in the public now that did not exist when her daughter disappeared at the age of 20 into the influence of a group of crooks operating in Las Vegas.
"Brainwashing is the biggest concern," said Grant, because the girls (young females are not the only victims, but they are the majority) are not usually kidnapped, they are coerced. "It only takes 72 hours to effectively brainwash a young person, if you know what you're doing, and these people are pros at it. If violence or drugs are used, it takes even less time."
Her daughter fell for the "boyfriend scenario" in the human trafficking industry. Over a long period of time a young man will seduce the target with glamourous trips, gifts, compliments, and lifestyle. It may be framed as a friendship that escalates (as it was with Foster) or it may be a romantic encounter from the start. But make no mistake, said Grant, the intent is, from the start, to groom them for the sex trade.
The boyfriend scenario also provides the groomers with tools to use: the trust of the target who told them all about their family and friends and best memories and favourite things. All that gets threatened if she ever tries to leave.
"The first human trafficking incident I knew of in my work around Prince George was 22 years ago. It is still happening," said Diane Nakamura of the local advocacy group CASEY (Communities Against Sexual Exploitation Of Youth).
For many of the region's victims, they are not trafficked far - from town to town around the north, sometimes to the Lower Mainland or Alberta. Some disappear for prolonged lengths of time, some manage to get back to their loved ones. When they do escape, said Grant, they need help to deal with post traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, irrational behaviour, mental breakdowns, suicidal behavior, diseases, dental problems, malnutrition and fear.
Loved ones need to prepare for the return of their missing sister or daughter or friend. They also need to accept a program of self-help while they wait. Grant said she tried to self-medicate with alcohol, but thankfully she rejected that before it caused further family angst.
"I told my other children to let me be the crazy one. They needed to get on with being happy, healthy people, raising their families and pursuing their goals in life. I'll take on the crazy stuff," Grant said.
In doing so she has raised the ire of U.S. law enforcement for nagging at them to do more. She has become heavily involved in social advocacy work, supporting other groups like Walk4Justice and the Highway Of Tears initiatives. She has a twice-weekly radio show on the subject of human trafficking on BlogTalk Radio. She has gotten her daughter's case featured on TV news shows, documentary films, magazines, awareness posters in 15 different languages, and Grant founded Mothers Against Trafficking Humans (MATH) to help others in her position.
"My daughter is not one in a million, as we first thought, she is one of millions," Grant said. "We've been told that Jessie's story is a 'classic case.' Who knew that this happened so much in Canada that there is a formula for classifying it?"
This is the 15th annual Stop The Sexual Exploitation of Youth Awareness Week across B.C.
"An escort agency in Prince George is expressing interest in opening up shop in Kitimat," said Nakamura. "I have already been in contact with a [social safety] service provider in Kitimat warning them about our experiences here in Prince George. With their booming economy, Kitimat is a perfect breeding ground for negative influences to creep in under the guise of a legitimate business. We as a collective northern community need to band together to protect our youth and vulnerable women from sexual exploitation."
Nakamura invites the public to attend an event Saturday with guest speaker Merlyn Horton, executive director of SOLOS (Safe Online Outreach Society). She will be providing a youth internet safety workshop at 2 p.m. in the Keith Gordon Room at the Prince George Public Library. This event is open to the general public and is free of charge.