Donated phones help to empower and heal human trafficking survivors

Wilmot councillor Angie Hallman collected over 20 donated devices for the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region’s Anti-Human Trafficking program. On March 13, Hallman and fellow councillors Jenn Pfenning and Cheryl Gordijk handed them over to SASCWR’s Executive Director Sara Casselman (at left). The phones will be used by at-risk youth and women.

In late February, Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region put out a call for the public to donate old phones to the SASCWR’s Anti-Human Trafficking Program. The request on Twitter caught the attention of Wilmot councillor Angie Hallman.

She reached out to the community using her own social media, offering to collect and deliver donated devices, and recruited fellow councillors Cheryl Gordijk and Jenn Pfenning to help with the local phone drive.

“At January’s ROMA (Rural Ontario Municipal Association), I attended a seminar on the human trafficking issues we’re facing in rural Ontario,” said Hallman. “When the request came out from SASCWR, I knew I had to help spread the word. Our family was able to donate two used phones, but that was a drop in the bucket. After sharing the message on social media, I spent several evenings picking up devices from people who felt compelled to help. One person also donated a large bag with bottles of shampoo and conditioner.”

After they dropped off more than 20 phones and tablets at SASCWR’s Kitchener offices on March 13, the organization’s Executive Director Sara Casselman gave the three councillors a tour of the facility.

Hallman said, “The tour sits heavy in my heart. It’s amazing how many lives are supported in our community on a daily basis. To hear the number of people who are on their waiting list and needing support is alarming.”

There are a number of situations where a personal phone can be lifeline for survivors. “The phones are given to survivors of human trafficking and those who are at significant risk of sex trafficking or exploitation,” said Nicky Carswell, coordinator of the SASCWR’s Anti-Human Trafficking Program. They can use “an extra phone to hide from a trafficker or abuser, and use it for emergencies.”

If a client is experiencing homelessness, SASCWR works out a plan to obtain long term housing, and the organization needs to be able to get in touch easily. Those with significant addiction or mental health concerns can be contacted for treatment arrangements.

“For someone who does not have access to technology, safety planning relies on being able to communicate via telephone, text, email, Snapchat.”

“Several clients have used their phones to obtain housing, attend treatment, book appointments with supports, and find education or employment opportunities,” added Carswell.

“In 2020, the use of technology is normalized and wide-spread. One can’t call emergency services without a phone. Also, with the increasing popularity of online registration, forms, intakes, it is challenging for folks to get connected to supports and services.”

“Access to phones will help individuals leave unsafe situations by allowing them to call for help when needed, connect with necessary supports and services, share their location with supports, and be in contact with those outside of trafficking situations.”

It can “help us keep in contact with or track those who are highly vulnerable or transitioning into a situation of trafficking.”

Although she doesn’t have statistics, Carswell warns that human trafficking isn’t just a problem in cities.

“Rural youth are at risk, just as urban youth are. If there is a motel or Airbnb in rural communities, then trafficking is still a possibility.”

Carswell gave examples of donated phones helping vulnerable women. “A youth went missing, she shared her location settings, and we quickly located her. A young woman hid her phone and later used it to call for help while being trafficked in a motel room.”

“Phones are often used as a tool of control, so to have their own phone that is controlled by the client is empowering and promotes healing.”