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 it.

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 Street house.

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.

Mike McIntyre
20 February 2007


How old are the kids involved in child prostitution?

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 Winnipeg?

In 2005, more than 30 children were involved in an alleged West End child prostitution ring in a Victor Street home.

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 the accused.

Winnipeg Free Press archives, Criminal Intelligence Service Canada

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