The Catholic Register
September 17, 2023
Human Trafficking

‘It can happen anywhere, to anyone’

Covenant House takes trafficking message to Gen Z

‘It can happen anywhere, to anyone’

Suzie Tarlattini and Covenant House Toronto’s Awareness and Prevention Program have delivered presentations on human trafficking to more than 54,000 students and adults in the GTA.

(Photo courtesy Covenant House Toronto)

  • avatar
    Quinton Amundson
    The Catholic Register

Madonna Catholic Secondary School 10th-grader Vanessa Santarossa said it was shocking for her and her classmates to learn, during a presentation offered by Covenant House Toronto last April, about the chilling realities of sex trafficking.

“I’m a teenage girl. It’s a scary thing to hear about and know that (trafficking) is happening to people our age and close to home where we live,” said Santarossa. “It is important for us to be educated to keep ourselves safe.”

Suzie Tarlattini, the supervisor for Covenant House Toronto’s Awareness and Prevention Program, counts Santarossa as one of over 54,000 students and adults in the Greater Toronto Area who have experienced the non-profit’s free-of-charge presentation, Trafficked. This seminar was designed for Grade 7-12 students in 2016 and is offered either in-person or virtually.

Tarlattini has shepherded many of the 744 presentations of Trafficked mounted to date. She said students are presented with a comprehensive overview of a deeply complex and misunderstood social issue.

“We cover important topics like traffickers’ tactics, warning signs, healthy relationships, safety tips and where to get information and help,” said Tarlattini. “Our sessions are interactive throughout and we cover a lot of ground at a brisk pace. It is all to effectively engage Gen-Z and their notoriously short eight-second attention span.”

Madonna principal Kristine Carey qualified the Covenant House presentations as “an excellent resource we use for our Grade 10 students” that helps with the school’s larger mission to nurture beyond academics, helping each student attain holistic development “so they have the skills to be safe in society.”

“We listen to their voice, we know what they face out there and we listen to the news,” said Carey. “Sex trafficking is something we are concerned about, especially being an all-girls school. We worry that after the pandemic we are not sure what students are doing online or what they have been exposed to. Educating them and making sure they are aware of the dangers is important.”

Santarossa credits Covenant House Toronto for fostering an atmosphere allowing students to feel as comfortable as possible on a topic broaching uncomfortable territory.

“It was very relaxed,” recalled Santarossa. “They kept it a very safe environment. We didn’t feel like the presentation was too serious or that we were pressured into learning about something we are scared of. We felt that if we didn’t want to listen any more, we could leave. It was just a very comforting environment.”

Tarlattini said creating a safe setting is extremely important.

“To be clear, we are not there to instigate panic or fear. We assure students there is no need to be paranoid or afraid. We want them to continue to live their lives as usual, but to keep their eyes open.”

Rewardingly for Tarlattini and her team, students perennially report the presentation shatters common misconceptions about trafficking and is persuasive in making the case that exploitation is a local issue that cannot be ignored.

“I find that a lot of people confuse human kidnapping or human smuggling for human trafficking and that many equate human trafficking with sweatshops in foreign places,” said Tarlattini. “Most don't immediately associate the word ‘trafficking’ with the sexual exploitation of our youth. Most people are not aware that sex trafficking is the most common form anywhere in Canada.

“A lot of people also think that trafficking takes place in one, big dramatic event. Manipulation and coercion can be very subtle, and both can be very difficult for a young person to recognize if they don’t know what to look out for.” 

According to Covenant House Toronto’s research — and in line with the data of other expert sources, including The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking — the average age of a trafficking victim in Canada is only 17. Disturbingly, victims can be younger as the Toronto Police Service’s human trafficking enforcement team has encountered since it was formed in 2014. Indigenous victims have been found to be even be younger: eight years old.

“We let students know that sex trafficking is a growing crime that can happen to anyone regardless of age, culture, income, orientation, gender, neighbourhood, race or religion,” said Tarlattini.

Supporting homeless youth is the other core mandate at Covenant House Toronto. The organization operates a shelter supporting nearly 300 young people per day. Unsurprisingly, there is a commonality that exists between homelessness and trafficking. Financially destitute youth — adults too — with no access to stable housing are disproportionally exploited. The isolated existence many impoverished people endure can leave them prey to psychological manipulation.

Revealing the truth that trafficking does not require a border crossing — one of the most popular, hard-to-shake myths — ranks as the standout “aha” or “eureka” moments of Trafficked for many students.

“It can happen anywhere to anyone, and it may be something that their peers are experiencing,” said Tarlattini. “It is local and happening in our backyards. Traffickers can find their victims online, at schools, malls, parties, libraries or bus stops — anywhere youth hang out.”

Each presentation ends with a lively trivia challenge designed on the game-based learning platform Kahoot! The intent is two-fold: students share what they have absorbed, and perhaps exit the session in a more upbeat frame-of-mind after being confronted with potentially upsetting facts and stories.

Every student is provided with a link that connects them to some of the online resources to share. One girl approached Tarlattini after a recent presentation to inform her that she “now had the strength to no longer walk alone.”

Santarossa said although Trafficked has her generation in mind, there is value in exposing this information to parents and other adults, especially to illuminate why this societal ill so often victimizes young people.

“I think having more people understand this topic will help lead to more empathy and support,” said Santarossa. “I think a lot of adults, especially, don’t understand the mindset that might be occurring in teenagers that might lead to (trafficking) happening to them. They could think, ‘how can they be so stupid falling for something like that?’ This is because they might not understand what is going on in a younger person’s life.”

Covenant House Toronto does offer anti-trafficking presentations and resources to older audiences. Training modules have been specifically developed for hotels, taxi companies, tourism boards and other organizations that may interact with victims. These training sessions arm attendees with warning signs, common profile information of victims and traffickers and how to effectively respond if they witness trouble.

In 2020, Covenant House Toronto launched the webpage Traffick Stop, a hub containing all the findings the charity has gathered in its anti-trafficking efforts over the past 40 years. These research and prevention efforts represent two of the three pillars of the Urban Response anti-trafficking plan put into effect by Covenant House Toronto in 2016. The third is providing direct services to survivors.

The team offers crisis shelter beds, health care and counselling for traumatized victims. It also operates Avdell Home and Rogers Home. Each of these specialized housing facilities can accommodate up to six female victims of trafficking. Beyond meeting basic needs, the staff at these lodges offer legal guidance, substance abuse and mental health supports and present pathways for education and work opportunities.

Inclusivity is a value permeating the work Covenant House Toronto does to combat trafficking. One of the successes of its Trafficked presentations is that they have been presented at a nearly equal amount of Catholic and public schools. Crafting informational content that appeals to the widest possible audience requires a form of presentation not overtly steeped in religious terminology. The young people who come to the shelter seeking help are also of different creeds.

However, Tarlattini said values of Catholicism internally energizes each staff member in their anti-trafficking efforts.

“We have pillars of our faith that drive all the work that we do,” said Tarlattini.

“Covenant House is a Catholic agency, and our work is rooted in Catholic principles. At the same time, the youth who we serve who are homeless or are survivors of sex trafficking come from all walks of life. They are of every background and every faith. We help everyone. That’s a value of the Catholic faith. You don’t discriminate. The messaging itself is not rooted in faith, but the intention behind the words is rooted in faith.”

Tarlattini said she feels empowered following Jesus Christ’s teaching of offering service to the world through her work as an activist, educator, speaker and storyteller.

“I had a conversation with my mom. She was telling me about going to Mass. I was telling her that I feel like I am out there in the world doing that work every day,” said Tarlattini.

“Every time I commune with a school or a group of students, that is doing important work. It is not the same thing as just showing up, sitting there, listening and trying to participate. You know what I mean? It is trying to do the work you are taught to do.”

Subscribe to our email newsletter