06/06/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 08/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Nanny Human Trafficking Trial: Leticia Sarmiento Grilled By Defence

VANCOUVER - A nanny who claims she was forced into servitude in a Vancouver-area household was in reality treated as "member of the family," often invited along for nice meals and even feted with birthday celebrations, a lawyer for the couple told their human trafficking trial Thursday — a stark contrast to the oppressive, prison-like existence the caregiver has described.

Defence lawyer Nicholas Preovolos picked apart much of Leticia Sarmiento's story as he cross-examined her Thursday, rejecting her claims that she was forbidden from making phone calls to her family back in the Philippines and suggesting it was actually her idea to move with the family to Canada from Hong Kong in the first place.

Franco Yiu Kwan Orr and Ling Nicole Huen are on trial before a jury on immigration charges of organizing illegal entry into Canada and organizing the illegal employment of a foreign national. Orr is also charged with knowingly misrepresenting facts during the immigration process.

Sarmiento, 40, had worked for Orr and Huen taking care of their three children since 2007, first in Hong Kong and then, starting in September 2008, in Canada. That ended in June of 2010, when Sarmiento called 911 and told responding police officers that she needed help.

Sarmiento has testified she was forced to work long hours with no days off, forbidden from leaving the family's Vancouver-area homes, forced to clean and cook in addition to her childcare duties, only allowed one phone call to her family in the Philippines each month, and had her passport taken from her.

But Preovolos painted a different picture as he cross-examined Sarmiento, telling the court Sarmiento had a positive relationship with the couple and their children and would have been free if she wanted to. He also pointed to phone records that indicate someone in the house called the Philippines home several times a month and he denied anyone ever took Sarmiento's passport.

"Weren't you like a member of the family while you were here in Canada? A loved and valued member of the family?" asked Preovolos.

"No," replied Sarmiento, speaking through an interpreter.

"If they were going out for a nice lunch or dinner on the weekend, you weren't required to accompany them but they asked you if you wanted to enjoy a meal out of the house?" Preovolos asked later.

"That is wrong," replied Sarmiento.

Sarmiento, who now works as a cleaner, travelled with Orr and Huen to Canada on a six-month work visa, which had expired long before police attended the family home in 2010.

Sarmiento testified she called the police after an altercation over the type of milk she fed one of the children turned physical when Huen pushed her. She packed her things under the watch of police officers and was then taken to a women's shelter, the trial heard.

Preovolos pointed to Sarmiento's own testimony in which she said Orr and Huen were kind to her when they lived in Hong Kong.

"These apparently nice people in Hong Kong turned into very unkind people in Canada?" Preovolos asked. "They switched from good to bad?"

"That's exactly correct," replied Sarmiento.

Preovolos presented a handful of photographs that showed Sarmiento posing in front of cakes on at least two of her birthdays, according to time stamps on the photos, as well as other occasions.

In one photo, Sarmiento is seen posing on front of a cake that appeared to have her name written on it, but Sarmiento insisted the cake was not for her.

Instead, Sarmiento said the cake bearing her name was actually for one of the children's birthdays. She said on her own birthdays, the family would only buy a cake because the children wanted to blow out the candles.

Preovolos handed Sarmiento telephone records he said came from a land line installed in the house.

He said the records showed more than 90 calls to a telephone number based in the Philippines in the 21 months Sarmiento lived with Orr and Huen. He suggested the records dispute Sarmiento's claim she was only allowed one telephone call per month.

Sarmiento repeatedly denied making the calls and said she did not recognize the number. She also claimed either Orr or Huen took her phone cards and a sheet of paper with the telephone numbers of several family members written on it the day they travelled to Canada.

Preovolos told the court it was Sarmiento's idea to come to Canada.

When the family lived in Hong Kong, Orr frequently travelled to Cambodia as part of a construction project in that country. However, in June of 2008, he returned from a trip to Cambodia with news the project had suffered a "catastrophic business failure."

Orr told Sarmiento and another nanny that worked for the family he had no choice but to let them go, but that he would keep them on a short-term basis to allow them to look for new jobs, said Preovolos.

"You were very upset when Mr. Orr broke the news that he couldn't afford to keep you, you pleaded with him to consider letting you join him in Canada?" asked Preovolos

"That is not correct," said Preovolos.

Preovolos did not explain what changed in the following three months that led the family to bring Sarmiento to Canada.

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