When you hear about human trafficking in the sex trade, most people have an image of women being smuggled into Canada from abroad and forced to work in seamy brothels.
But there's a thriving trafficking trade right here at home and it's run by pimps who prey on the naïve and innocent. It could be a young woman from your neighbourhood, maybe the daughter of a friend, or the girl next door. And her entry into the sex trade is rarely by choice.
It starts in a bar, a club or even online: a meeting with someone who makes the girl feel special when they find themselves isolated, lonely and confused. But soon that relationship turns ugly and by then it's too late to escape.
In reality, that charming boyfriend is a pimp who uses threats, beatings and rape to force the girl into prostitution.
"He beat me up so bad that my hotel room looked like a murder scene," said Jasmine, a former sex trade worker, who drifted into prostitution when she was a university student.
"My face was so mangled I didn't even look like myself anymore," she said.
In York Region, a suburb north of Toronto, police are trying a new approach to rescue women like Jasmine from the sex trade. The aim is to treat them not as criminals, but as victims.
"They're crying for help," said Det. Sgt. Henry De Ruiter, the head of York Regional Police Drugs and Vice Unit. "So if we can get in there and can establish that rapport and hope for them to finally come forward and talk to us, that's what it's all about."
Using undercover officers who make contact with prostitutes, York Regional Police try to persuade the young women to turn in their pimps. But it's not easy. Most women in the sex trade are afraid of police and don't trust them.
"I wouldn't have thought police would have helped me because for years they accused me," said Trish, a former prostitute who suffered horribly at the hands of a pimp. "They came after me instead of looking at the bigger picture."
Turning that perception around means a lot of hard work and patience.
"It's a matter of keeping in contact with the girls by phone calls, by text messaging," said Detective Sergeant De Ruiter. "Make them realize that we understand what they're going through based on our experiences with previous girls, and that we have help ready for them."
It's an approach that worked with Jasmine after she learned to trust one of York Region's undercover officers.
"He just spoke to me like I was a person," said Jasmine. "And people don't do that when you're prostituting."
With the help of Jasmine's testimony, her pimp, Joseph Bernadelle, was convicted and sentenced to two years in jail for assault, sexual assault and living on the avails of prostitution
And now Jasmine is rebuilding her life, reunited with her family, engaged to man she met at her church and leaving the pain she suffered in the sex trade behind her. "Life is better than I ever imagined," she said with a broad smile.