Testimony jolts inquest; police say hands tied
Hundreds of kids in sex trade
HUNDREDS of vulnerable Winnipeg children, some as
young as eight years old, are selling their bodies to adult men for
money, drugs and even food and shelter, a provincial inquest was told
Monday. But Winnipeg police say there's very little they can do about
Det.-Sgt. Jeff Coates candidly admitted the most
heinous sex offenders -- adults who prey on young children -- are
largely going unpunished because police lack the resources and ability
to go after them. Instead, they focus on the easier arrests, such as men
targeting adult prostitutes. "It's very frustrating. The worst of these
offenders fly under the radar. The worst form of prostitution is allowed
to prevail," Coates said.
"With adults, we can put officers out there in an
undercover role to catch some of these johns. But we can't use an
undercover 14-year-old, and there are no police officers that age. So
the worst offenders aren't being prosecuted." He called for the province
and city to examine their priorities and look at a dedicated unit to
deal with sexually exploited street kids, just as police have partnered
with Manitoba Public Insurance to tackle auto theft.
"There needs to be a political will to dedicate
resources to this," Coates said.
Coates was called to testify at the inquest of Tracia
Owen, a 14-year-old girl who started working the streets in the months
before her August 2005 suicide. The teen hung herself with a rope tied
to the overhead door of a garage used by prostitutes behind a Victor
Manitoba's chief medical examiner called for a public
inquest last year in an effort to shine a light on the growing problem
of youth sexual exploitation and drug use. "We need to tell the public
about what's happening out there," said Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra. "No
one wants to talk about it, but it's a rampant problem and we have to
talk about it."
Jane Runner has spent the past 21 years talking to
sexually exploited teens and women about their experiences on the
street. She offered some sobering statistics to the court on Monday.
Runner, who heads programming at New Directions in
Winnipeg, said there are "hundreds" of teen and pre-teen girls working
the streets, with an even greater number abused by adults behind closed
doors. The youngest she has heard of was eight, and the average age is
about 13. She told court that 80 per cent of child prostitution occurs
in gang houses and "trick pads." Runner estimated that 70 per cent of
the girls are aboriginal, more than 70 per cent are wards of Child and
Family Services, and more than 80 per cent get involved after running
away from their placements.
Runner said a majority of the kids in prostitution
have already been victims of sexual abuse. Other common precursors
include fetal alcohol syndrome and physical abuse at home.
"Unfortunately, we're seeing a lot more of the generations, where maybe
the mother or the older sister have been previously involved in the sex
trade before they get involved," Runner said.
In the case of Tracia Owen, the teen had been placed
in the care of Project Neechiwan by South-East Child and Family
Services, but went AWOL before her death. The inquest has heard that the
agency moved her 64 times, including returning her to her parents 17
times before her death.
Runner said she believes society largely views
children such as Owen as "the bad kids," not as victims. "A lot of
people don't see this as child abuse," she said.
Runner told provincial court Judge John Guy more
public education is needed, along with a greater effort in schools to
help steer some of these children away from the sex trade at an early
age. She echoed the concerns of Winnipeg police and said a more
resources are needed.
Michael Bear, executive director of South-East Child
and Family Services, previously told the inquest that Owen is the face
of an aboriginal child and family services system that is overworked,
understaffed and underfinanced.
Bear said his agency is responsible for about 950
children, meaning each worker has a caseload of about 35 children. A
more manageable number would be around 20, he said. "With that high a
caseload, things can get by workers. The child could fall through the
cracks. You only have 24 days in a month. The issues my staff deal with
are extreme," Bear said. He said additional money the provincial
government is injecting into the child welfare system will translate
into only one more social worker for his agency.
"It's putting a finger in the dike to hold back a
tidal wave of water," he said.
20 February 2007
|How old are the kids involved in
The average age is about 14, the age of
consent in Canada, but child prostitutes have been reported as
young as eight years old.
How do kids become ensnared?
Child prostitution doesn't necessarily involve
pimps, and can occur when a youth follows a friend or family
member onto the streets to get money to pay for basic needs --
what many experts call "survival sex."
What kind of person forces a child
into selling their bodies?
Usually people who have been sexually
exploited themselves. Children as young as 11 have bullied their
friends into prostitution.
- In one case in Saskatoon in 2003, a
14-year-old Saskatoon girl was sentenced to a year in secure
custody for holding a knife to the throat of a 12-year-old
and trying to get her to turn a trick to get money for beer.
- In another case, also in Saskatoon, a
13-year-old pleaded guilty to punching a 14-year-old girl in
the shoulder until she started to turn tricks. The
14-year-old made up to $500 a night, giving it to the
13-year-old, who used it to buy marijuana, pills and snacks
for herself and other girls.
Have there been any major cases in
In 2005, more than 30 children were involved
in an alleged West End child prostitution ring in a Victor
Police said about 20 youngsters between the
ages of 12 and 16 were used in the sex operation, and 11 others
from 18 months to 11 years old were sometimes in the vicinity of
the sex crimes.
Two adult women were charged with multiple
offences, including living off the avails of prostitution and
procuring children for the purposes of prostitution. Court
documents indicated some of the children were related to one of
Free Press archives, Criminal Intelligence Service Canada