Our team huddles around a table at Tim’s, sipping coffee and munching on a breakfast of muffins as we lay out our strategy for the morning’s events. We review formation; what circumstances would warrant the diamond, box or the arch, and where the main exits in and out of the building are located. Our discussion over strategy abruptly comes to a close as the young woman enters the restaurant. Dressed in a modest grey dress, nails newly painted a metallic purple, and her auburn hair pulled back to reveal the bluest of eyes, Meaghan approaches, smiling nervously at our group. We’re all on our feet.
One by one, Meaghan meets her team. In her short life of nineteen years, she probably could never have imagined having an entourage, and certainly not under such circumstances.
Meaghan is neither the kingpin of a bank heist nor a sought after celebrity. She’s a survivor of Human Trafficking and this day marks the first day of the rest of her life. It’s the first day of preliminary hearings to see her trafficker be put behind bars and we, her entourage, are there to make sure she has the support and protection to see it through from beginning to end.
While certainly not veterans, mainly because human trafficking trials are relatively new to Ontario courts, we have had some exposure to the scare tactics used to silence a young survivor .
Experience has shown us that it’s not always who is in the courtroom that poses the threat, but who’s outside waiting. A simple trip to the bathroom can turn into a confrontation with the pimp’s ‘girlfriend’. Lunch break might find a not-so-inconspicuous articling student for the defense sitting in the booth next to you in an attempt to eavesdrop on the conversation. Running the gauntlet through the parking lot after a day of testimony is no easy feat as the trafficker’s cronies hurl abusive epithets from different posts along the path to the car. While a guilty verdict can be satisfying for a young survivor, the process it takes to get to that point can be traumatizing. Hence learning the different formations. Diamond for close quarters, box for a larger spaces, and the arch for those times when you literally find yourself with your back against the wall.
Initially, the whole prospect of being escorted is exasperating to our young charge; who wants to pee with someone standing outside the stall? Who can pee with someone standing outside the stall? But once in the courtroom seeing the accused escorted to the prisoner’s box in handcuffs, staring menacingly at you changes everything. Suddenly having a few strangers in your corner seems like a pretty good idea after all.
We’re not there to intimidate or threaten the accused or his gang, (although we have some pretty big dudes on our team that could certainly do just that) we are simply a silent barrier and covering to ensure she can do what she has set out to do–put a predator behind bars. Initially, the investigating officers and crown attorney’s office are not thrilled. Convinced that we’ll be more trouble than we’re worth, they try to dissuade the group from following Meaghan into the courtroom. Their arguments are respectfully heard, but the teams resolve remains. What the Crown and the officers witness has them recanting. Now they want the team cloned. They spot the reaction of the accused immediately. The cocky swagger of the accused as he’s escorted into the court room is quickly replaced by a look of confusion which turns to fear, which turns to eyes staring at the floor. ‘Who are these people?’ You can see it playing over in his mind.
So who are we?
We are the brain child of a seasoned street youth worker who saw too many young women fleeing the stand for a feigned bathroom break, never to return. Twenty minutes on the stand with the trafficker’s lawyer trying to shift the blame on her is enough to break a young woman whose painful experience has already broken her into more pieces than a guilty verdict can put back together. Many of these young survivors have no support, whether it’s lack of family, or a supportive family, given the delicate nature of the circumstances. Friends are unheard of; their years in The Game (the term for working in prostitution) has alienated them from developing normal relationships and eroded existing ones. Alone, she sits in the witness stand, staring out at a sea of judging and accusing eyes with a defense lawyer chipping away at her last shred of dignity. Tears and confusion are his/her goal; if they can get her to choke completely on the stand, all the better. The Crown Attorney, while working with the survivor, is ultimately concerned with getting a guilty verdict. There is neither time nor desire for friendship. Likewise with the investigating officer(s) and the VWAP (Victim/Witness Assistance Program) worker. This is business for them, but for her, this is her life.
That’s where we come in. The goal is not to become bosom buddies with Meaghan, but develop a trust and rapport that helps her to feel genuinely cared for and protected. She can look out at the crowd from the witness box and connect with a friendly face, an imperceptible smile that says, ‘You’re doing great; you’ve got this!’ When she’s done in the courtroom, then we are too. In one fluid motion, we drop into formation, surrounding Meaghan like a hen covers her chick with her wing. As a group of Christians, we cover her in prayer too. Meaghan isn’t sure how she feels about God or Christians, and that’s okay; we’d still support her if she announced that she worshipped gummy bears. She accepts the prayers and the protection that comes from us and from above, whatever that looks like to her. Our goal isn’t to make converts, rather our mandate comes from the book of Isaiah 1:17:
“Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.”
Meaghan’s journey is far from over and will continue long after any verdict is handed down. In the meantime, she will be our little chick, safely hidden under the shadow of our wing until justice is served.
Yes and amen.
(‘Meaghan’ is not the witness/survivor’s real name.The author has changed her name to protect her identity)