Sunday, April 18, 1999

Michelle Shephard

p. A1.

72-hour rescue for child prostitutes

Toronto studying Calgary 'safe haven' plan to aid street kids

CALGARY — At 1.30 a.m. the lights are on at Joe's Place in a south Calgary apartment. Joe's still awake. Sitting in his worn easy chair, chain-smoking with his 80-year-old legs stretched out in front of him.

Mattresses, cigarette butts, discarded clothing, used condoms and fast-food containers are scattered on the floor. Amid the squalour, young girls ply their trade.

Police call it a trick pad or a flop house. Neighbours call it disgraceful. Teenage prostitutes call it home.

Trick pads like Joe's are one of the negative side effects of a new law that has drastically changed juvenile prostitution in Alberta. Police admit such places are hard to monitor.

The Protection of Children Involved in Prostitution Act, introduced Feb. 1, hikes the maximum fine for johns and pimps caught with juvenile prostitutes to $25,000 from $2,000 and jail terms to two years less a day from six months.

But it is the first law in Canada to allow police and social workers to pull girls under 18 off the streets for 72 hours and take them to a safe place — with or without their consent.

For this reason, the law is being closely watched in Toronto, Vancouver and outside of Canada.

In the 2 ½ months since the law was brought in, there have been few, if any, teenage prostitutes left on Calgary streets, and police and social workers hope this means some girls have been dissuaded from working in the sex trade.

But they also acknowledge that a couple of months is not enough to wipe out juvenile prostitution and they worry that girls have fled the province or simply gone indoors to trick pads.

Teen hookers get safe haven

"They're are all gone now," says one 40-year-old prostitute, who is seen as a kind of mother figure because of her 20 years on the street. "It's good. Teenagers don't belong out here.

The flight of the young girls has pleased many of the women on the street. They want to see them get a better start on life. But they also admit reluctantly that they're happy to see the competition gone. A 14-year-old girl will attract double the clientele of a seasoned 30-year-old.

But what really grabs the attention of front-line workers is the law's innovative idea to provide mandatory counselling in a safe haven for girls for 72 hours to try to lure them out of prostitution.

Police and social workers in Toronto say they'd welcome legislation like Alberta's since they are unable to show the majority of prostitutes they encounter — 16- and 17-year-olds — that there is another way of life.

In Alberta, that's the job of Madelyn McDonald, the owner of Calgary's safe haven. In a lime-coloured cottage nestled in pine trees overlooking the Bow River, she can house up to seven girls at a time.

Only the locks on the outside door detract from the quaint atmosphere. In one room, comfortable chairs encircle a gas fireplace. In another, a massive TV sits in front of quilt-covered couches. Each bedroom has slippers, a teddy bear, clock radio and a new toothbrush.

"It's a vacation here for them away from an abusive pimp and life on the streets," says McDonald. "You know they're going back though. We're not under the impression that one trip locked up, 72 hours, can change them completely."

McDonald hopes that the intensive counselling will eventually sink in — even if it takes a few stays at the safe house. She hopes it's a start in breaking the juvenile prostitution cycle. Once the girls decide to leave the streets they are more likely to talk about the pimps who once controlled them and once they talk, police are closer to convicting the pimps.

In Edmonton, as many as 30 girls have been taken to safe houses. Calgary's Vice Squad Detectives Susan Brown and Len Dafoe have brought five girls to their city's safe house so far.

"If we can deter even a handful of these young kids from entering into this life then this legislation works," says Brown, as she begins her shift, driving what she calls Calgary's well known prostitution strolls.

You wouldn't believe how many of these girls just don't think there's any alternative," says Dafoe. "So many of them are so naive."

"They'll be told by some pimp that they can make $65,000 a year and have a nice life and they'll buy it."

Most prostitutes interviewed admitted the majority of their profits — sometimes as much as $400 a night — goes to their pimps. They are given a sparse allowance from their pimp for clothing, shelter, food, spending money and drugs. The girls say most of them are robbed, raped and beaten by clients or pimps.

"Everything is totally controlled by the these pimps from the time the girls wake up to when they finally get to sleep," says Vice Squad Detective John Fulton.

Police keep what are called "bad date sheets," compiled from prostitutes' reports of abusive episodes. Hundreds of records, many reports given to police by 16- and 17-year-olds before the new legislation, are tracked to try to identify sexual assault or possible homicide suspects.

One record from last summer describes a rape by a man in his 30s: "Took girl to cemetery to perform act. Another guy jumped out and they forced the blunt end of a knife inside her. The handle was made of wood or bamboo because she was left with splinters inside her."

Another report describes an attack with a curling iron. A third tells of a rape by a man in his 50s with salt and pepper hair, wearing expensive clothes and driving a new beige Toyota with cream-coloured interior. He refused to pay the prostitute and then raped her.

There is some concern that Calgary's young prostitutes may be drifting east.

In Toronto last week, the police department's juvenile task force arrested a man after a 16-year-old was brought from Calgary to work Toronto's streets.

The juvenile task force first met the girl when she flagged down a police cruiser in early March. She had been contacted in Calgary by the alleged pimp who flew her to Toronto to work for him, but when she arrived, she didn't want to go through with it.

Police took her to a home run by the Children's Aid Society, but the girl was soon back on the street after her alleged pimp spotted her and threatened to harm her or her family in Calgary.

He also threatened her unborn baby, since the teenager was now pregnant. the man told her she would have to pay $3,000 if she wanted to leave his "family." On Thursday, juvenile task force detectives again received a call from the girl from a strip bar in Mississauga where she said her pimp had forced her to dance.

Miguel McNish, 28, of Toronto was arrested that night by the juvenile task force and Peel Region police. He was charged with five offences including living on the avails of someone under 18, a crime that carries a mandatory sentence of five years in jail.

"It's ridiculous that you can't take a kid in Ontario off the streets to try to help them if they're between 16 to 18 but under the Criminal Code their pimps can be given five years," Detective Mike Beauparlant of the Juvenile Task Force said yesterday.

Last Wednesday night, Detectives Brown and Dafoe raided Joe's place. Although trick pads may hide young prostitutes, the new law gives police greater latitude in monitoring these places.

Under the legislation, if there are reasonable grounds to suspect girls under the age of 18 are in danger, police can raid a home without search warrants.

The detectives arrested Joe on his waterbed in his room, charging him with endangering a child's safety due to prostitution. They also found two prostitutes, 19 and 29 years old, in a second bedroom on a mattress covered with used condoms.

A 17-year-old prostitute was also found and was a good candidate for the new safe house. However, unlike most of the girls on the street, she had a family in the city.

Police decided to take her home to her parents. Then they turned the lights out at Joe's Place.

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Created: March 28, 2000
Last modified: January 15, 2001
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