The Catholic Register
September 17, 2023
Human Trafficking

Trafficking’s forgotten victims

Children top of mind, but adults are also trapped in exploitation

Trafficking’s forgotten victims

Trisha Baptie, head of Exploited Voices now Educating (EVE), speaks before the Canadian Senate for adults victimized by the human trafficking trade.


  • avatar
    Quinton Amundson
    The Catholic Register

“God’s children are not for sale.”

This emotionally potent declaration has emerged as the viral and arguably most transcendent moment of the surprise summer blockbuster sensation Sound of Freedom, starring Jim Caviezel, which chronicles the fight against human trafficking.

The line is gracing merchandise, headlining think pieces about combatting human trafficking and is even bursting through algorithms to become a worldwide trending hashtag on ‘X,’ formerly known as Twitter.

It’s obvious why the piece of dialogue is emerging as a formidable anti-trafficking war cry. Despite the perplexing, polarized state of our world, ending the victimization of young boys and girls is one of the rare issues where near-universal consensus can be formed.

But what about the adult victims?

Trisha Baptie, the executive director and community engagement coordinator of Exploited Voices now Educating (EVE), is among the chorus of voices who would like the child victimization to end, but also would like to see greater public empathy for adults entrapped in exploitation.

Baptie, a 50-year-old based in Vancouver, knows of what she speaks. She was forced into prostitution at age 13 and worked in the sex industry, both indoor and outdoor, for over 15 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, known for its high level of drug abuse, homelessness, crime, mental illness and sexual exploitation.

During an interview with The Catholic Register, it was apparent Baptie is perceptive as to how much easier it is to rally compassion for trafficked children than adults.

“It’s very easy to say that human trafficking on children is wrong,” she said. “It’s horrific. No child should go through that. It happened to me, and I can tell you that it really sucks.

“What we are not talking about is adults, because people are scared to talk about adults. They don’t want to offend people. Maybe she does choose (sex work). My answer to that is that I got involved when I was 13. I didn’t choose it suddenly on my 18th birthday. We need to look at a woman’s history, the totality of her life and how she got there.”

Before her coerced recruitment into sex trafficking, Baptie’s family broke down and she ended up in government care. She decided the living situation she was placed in would not be good for her, and chose to take her chances living on the street. To her, “it seemed safer than staying inside that house” because one boy in her co-ed group home was inappropriately touching her. 

Downtown Vancouver
Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside is where Trisha Baptie lost numerous friends who were involved in the sex trade, many to serial killer Robert Pickton. Baptie gave voice to the victims as a citizen journalist covering Pickton’s trial for online publication Orato. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“I told my social worker,” said Baptie. “She laughed and said, ‘boys will be boys — just stay out of his way.’ I learned really early on that my body did not have anything to do with me. It wasn’t mine. It was something for men.”

Living on the streets led Baptie to experience the fate of many marginalized girls: being ensnared by a predatory man. This stranger offered Baptie basic shelter and food. The minor was expected to reimburse these “kindnesses” by offering sex to him and his friends.

“It is not like you consciously make this decision,” said Baptie. “I didn’t even call it prostitution until I was in my 20s. I didn’t even realize that was what I was doing. And so, in the ’90s I found myself on the Downtown Eastside. When I was down there, crack hadn’t hit, meth hadn’t hit, and a lot of the gangs hadn’t hit. It was very different than it is today. There was still a lot of money down there.”

Emotion fills Baptie’s voice as she recalls her devastation over the disappearance of her friend Brenda Wolfe.

“We would go to police, and we would say, ‘you’ve got to go find Brenda — Brenda’s missing. She’s not around. She’s not calling her kids,’ ” said Baptie. “And the police would say to us, ‘she’s a hooker. We’re not putting time and resources into it. She doesn’t want to be found. She’s fine.’ But it kept happening.”

In February 2002, Baptie saw the headlines that Robert Pickton had been charged with 26 murders in connection with women who disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The serial killer, now 73, is serving a life sentence. During his incarceration, he has confessed to 49 killings.  

“As soon as I saw Robert Pickton’s pig farm, I knew that is where my friends were.”

One of the defining and empowering experiences of Baptie’s life was covering Pickton’s trial as a citizen journalist for Orato, an online publication that showcases first-person accounts of events.

Baptie, who is a lapsed Catholic but a practising Christian, said “if it wasn’t for Jesus, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.” She believes God allowed her to encounter people who helped change her life’s direction. The first was a young outreach worker who was also a student at Trinity Western University.

'I had to learn how to live all over again'

Baptie admitted that she actively avoided social workers because she had children from different men who she had placed in secreted locations outside of Vancouver to keep them safe from apprehension. But a trusting friendship was eventually formed with this young worker. A U.S. citizen, she headed home to California over the summer. She made a proposition to Baptie before she went home,

“She asked me, ‘If I paid your bills, would you leave prostitution?’ ” recalled Baptie. “I actually told her to eff off and hung up the phone. What I heard was ‘what you are doing is not right,’ but what she was saying was I love you too much to leave you there.

“I looked at all my kids. I know that we live in the ’hood. I know that we are poor. I know they all have different dads. I know they are all different ethnicities. Maybe this is not about me. Maybe this is my chance to make their lives different.”

Baptie also had her resolve to leave sex work strengthened through a non-denominational prayer group that held its meetings at her house. What were originally intended as Bible study sessions quickly turned into a Trisha Baptie intervention and support team each Tuesday night.

“I had no idea how to live, right? I think people believe you just give up prostitution and you get on with life. That is not how it works. I had no skills on how to deal with real life. When prostitution is your life, and selling your body is how you interact with people, that really stunts your interaction with society. I had to learn how to live all over again. This group of women were amazingly selfless.”

She said God also put people in her life following the Pickton trial who wanted her to speak before government committees, and to work with her in combatting trafficking. She helped found EVE in 2008. This organization comprises former sex workers who are determined to end the demand for paid sexual access to women and girls’ bodies.

A major critique Baptie levels against films like Sound of Freedom, or the Taken franchise starring Liam Neeson, is that neither addresses a true solution to reducing trafficking, which is “challenging the idea of men (or women) being able to purchase sex.”

Baptie said “these movies are sensationalized” and depict a type of trafficking that plays into the common stereotype that human trafficking is a victim being abducted by a stranger and taken to a different country, when the reality is that most victims know their trafficker very well. They don’t need to be kidnapped. The victim is coerced psychologically and physically to normalize their abusive circumstances.

'I think people believe you just give up prostitution and you get on with life. That is not how it works'

-- Trisha Baptie

“It is not an ‘over there’ issue, it is an in-your-neighbourhood issue,” said Baptie. “The conversation about trafficking because of the movie is good, but it creates situations where I must now spend half-an-hour countering everything they saw in the movie with the reality of the situation. It just makes more work.”

Jessa Dellow Crisp, 35, is a Canadian-born human trafficking survivor who saw Sound of Freedom. The PhD student and mental health professional now residing in Colorado recognizes that “on one hand it is sensationalized” but on the other “its depiction is quite accurate with overseas and international trafficking.”

Crisp would like to see moviegoers try to learn about such criminal enterprise as it exists closer to home.

“There has been a huge value in people learning about trafficking for the first time,” she said. “My question is what is going to be that next step? People are recognizing that this is not just happening in Colombia or Honduras, but also Canada and the United States. How are we going to train, educate and empower people who are now interested to learn more?”

One solution, she said, is listening to the stories of survivors, though Crisp said she is in a stage of her life where she no longer wishes to retell her story. It is chronicled, 

however, in the video I Survived Being Sold Into Child Porn & Sex Slavery - Jessa’s Story on YouTube. Here Crisp talks about being molested by family members and being sold into child pornography and then sexual servitude at studios, motels and brothels near Toronto.

Like Baptie, an encounter with people of faith proved to be a pivotal, uplifting part of Crisp’s healing journey. She said her time at the Covenant House Vancouver Catholic safehouse “changed my life.”

“They saw me as a person,” said Crisp. “They saw my hurt and pain, but also the beauty of my survival and the beauty of me sitting there. They did not see me as a street child with no home, but someone with value.”

During Crisp’s stay at Covenant House, she spent time with an elderly Catholic couple who showed her the type of pure love never offered by her family.

'Giving true love, the love of Jesus, is one of the best things you can do to help (a survivor)'

-- Jessa Dellow Crisp

“Giving true love, the love of Jesus, is one of the best things you can do to help (a trafficking survivor). I have experienced that. I would go to the senior’s centre with the elderly couple and have pudding and Jell-O. It wasn’t needing to go off and do big things. It wasn’t needing to give me money. It was about needing to give me that love.”

Following on the example of that one couple, Crisp said “it would be very powerful if churches can offer safe, non-judgmental spaces for healing, love, rest and belonging. That can truly transform a person’s life.”

Baptie concurred it would be powerful if people could learn to “look past the window dressing” and attempt to model “Jesus’ selfless love.” 

“I am rough around the edges,” said Baptie. “People look at all my tattoos, my piercings. I still drop the f-bomb every once in a while. You can choose to look at my outside or talk to me for five minutes and realize I don’t do a lot without praying about it and without consulting wisdom from other people.”

Even though the opportunities Baptie and Crisp have had to dialogue with governmental groups about trafficking are viewed by both as valuable, they both get especially emotional when talking about the fellow survivors they have accompanied.

“Just yesterday I got a message from a survivor that I helped,” said Crisp. “She told me, ‘Jess, I have just graduated from my program, and I just wanted to tell you I am doing very well. I just wanted to say thank you for being present and for walking with me through my journey.’ To me, that was so powerful.”

For Baptie, “when I receive a call at 4 a.m. with a hysterical woman at the other end of the line, and I know exactly what to do for her — that is where I thrive. It is always living in the reminder of why I am doing what I am doing. I think it could be easy to get lost in all the work I do in Parliament and with MPs. The grounding work of loving and knowing the woman is what I like the most.”

Human Trafficking
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