Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Tom Cohen
The Associated Press

Child sex trade thriving

Canadian communities, large and small, suffering problem

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (AP) — Chastity Scott lowered her pregnant torso onto a cushioned sofa, her dark eyes trying to follow the careening figure of 13-month-old Jorden.

She sighed like only a weary mother can, realizing Jorden would be awake long past bedtime and require countless more struggles to stand up and run her down.

It's demanding for any young woman, particularly a 15-year-old living in a Salvation Army home. For Scott, though, anything is better than her life of the last few years.

"I started working at 9," she said, using the euphemism for selling sex on the streets. "I was living in a foster home and I didn't like it and left. I had to support myself."

Work meant two tricks a day at 120 Canadian dollars each, or about $165 total, mostly with "older guys driving around looking." The money paid for food, clothes, makeup — the necessities for a self-perpetuating existence focused on surviving until the next dawn.

Police and social workers say Scott's story is far too common in Canada, where the child sex trade frequently snares troubled young people almost always from backgrounds of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

In major cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, such sexual exploitation has an underworld atmosphere involving children from all social and ethnic groupings.

Out in the smaller towns and rural areas of the world's second largest country, children forced or lured into the sex trade tend to reflect the local population. Most are Indian or mixed-race Canadians like Chastity, desperate for money, alcohol, drugs, food or just a ride, said Jannit Rabinovitch, a consultant for Save the Children Canada.

A recent study by the Canadian Council on Social Development, a nonprofit social service advocacy group, called sexual exploitation of children a growing problem that is luring pedophiles to Canada. Internet sites devoted to child sex list "kiddie strolls" for some Canadian cities, while Rabinovitch and others say the abuse — they refuse to call it prostitution — occurs everywhere.

"In all the communities I've been into in British Columbia, there is no question there is some sort of abuse taking place," said Sgt. John Ward, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police coordinator for missing and exploited children in the province.

Ward said half the 60,000 children who run away from home in Canada each year fail to return within 48 hours, with most ending up entangled in street life.

"There are a lot of runaway kids, street-wise kids, who will barter sex for anything," he said. "It's not an organized thing."

Rabinovitch, the Save the Children consultant, helped set up a 1998 conference in Victoria, British Columbia, where sexually exploited children from Canada, the United States and Latin America gathered to tell their stories.

Sarah Ninnie was one of them. She used to work the Saskatoon stroll along 21st Street to get money for the Ritalin and morphine that she and two members of her family shot up several times a day.

Wearing a neat wool skirt, her dark hair held by a butterfly clip, the 19-year-old shifted uncomfortably when talking about life on the street.

"People would drive around the house, looking for me," she said in a hushed voice. "A couple of times I got beat up, but I didn't really care. I had no hope for myself."

Ninnie mostly remembers the isolation. Her family wouldn't listen, the pimps and kids on the street weren't interested, and few social services addressed the child sex trade.

A plea from her younger sister finally got Ninnie to give up street life, and an invitation to the Victoria conference introduced her to others like herself. Finally she could share her sorrow.

"I didn't know anything about child abuse, that I was being exploited by people," she said. "It was so painful to talk about it."

Today Ninnie is finishing high school and works with a project for sexually exploited children spawned by the Victoria conference. Her life goal is to get other youths off the streets, where "you're always alone."

Isolation and loss of identity — two common traits of aboriginal children forced into the sex trade — are products of a cycle of social woes dating back generations.

Government policy from after World War II to 1979 forced most aboriginal children to attend residential schools away from their families. They lost their native language and culture and often faced physical and sexual abuse, returning home with emotional scars that exacerbated the poverty, joblessness and alcoholism endemic to many Indian reservations.

Sandi Leboeuf, director of the Saskatoon Tribal Council Family Center, said the residential schools also left parents isolated, breeding alcoholism and family dysfunction.

Her own story illustrates the problem. One of 17 children, only eight of whom lived to adulthood, she was sexually assaulted by a distant relative who had been a victim of sexual abuse at a residential school.

Only with unusual support, such as a father who gave up drinking, did she manage to avoid the streets, Leboeuf said. Two cousins abused by the same relative now have large families struggling with alcoholism and physical abuse.

Rabinovitch said increased public awareness and better training have mostly eradicated sexual abuse in public institutions like foster homes and residential schools.

"There's no access to kids in the public domain any more," she said. "Now you have to pay."

Stricter penalties for those who procure child sex are being considered by a committee of politicians, social workers and others investigating the problem in Saskatchewan.

Co-chairman Peter Prebble, a former social worker representing the New Democratic Party in the provincial parliament, said some committee members were shocked to learn at the first meeting in January that children as young as 9 are involved in the sex trade. He estimated that more than 100 children younger than 16 are working as prostitutes in Saskatoon alone.

Prebble also wants to examine preventive solutions like a program in Hawaii called Healthy Starts in which paraprofessionals monitor families of children considered at risk of abuse.

"We have a choice to make about whether we spend our resources solely on youth on the street, or if we're going to back off and spend some on prevention," he said.

In Regina, the provincial capital, aid workers Marie Smith and Karen Desjarlis work until 4 a.m. five nights a week in a recreational vehicle that serves as an outreach station for the government- and private-financed Pisim Wikihk Safety Services.

Pisim Wikihk, which means "sun house" in the Cree language, offers doughnuts, coffee and trained counselors in the vehicle. The informal setting and humor-laced banter are intended to ease the natural distrust of Indians to any kind of governmental authority.

"We are certified counselors, but they don't think we are," Smith said. "They just come in and relax and say, 'I don't really want to go to a counselor.' Meanwhile, that's what they're doing."

Such programs are increasing in cities, but social workers complain that children who finally decide to seek help have few options. Because of outdated laws and regulations, most official programs require children to be returned to their families, where the problem began.

Faced with that, children return to the streets, where they have their own identity, Smith explained.

"They get abused at home, but out here they have money and drugs and people know them," she said.

Scott, the teen-age mother expecting her second child, understands the lure of the street never disappears.

"My little sister, she's 8, she says, 'Chastity, I want to be just like you. You used to wear such nice clothes and so much makeup,"' Scott said. "I try to explain to her she can't."

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Created: November 20, 2000
Last modified: February 2, 2001
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