July 15, 1995

Gerry Bellett

Innocence for Sale

Pimps find a new target: young middle-class girls

Some mother or father reading this will make the harrowing discovery this summer that their teenage daughter has become a prostitute.

The child, perhaps only 12 or 13 years old, will enter a sex trade that is flourishing in Vancouver.

By one estimate, 1,000 children were offering sex for money on Vancouver's streets last year.

And, in a new and disturbing phenomenon, a growing number of these children are being recruited from middle class suburban homes by procurers who find suburban families ripe for exploitation.

The estimate that 1,000 or more children are prostituting themselves was made earlier this year by John Turvey, director of the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society.

Sgt. Bill Openshaw, head of the Vancouver vice intelligence unit, said police have figures on the number of children involved in prostitution, but he said Turvey's organization would have a good idea.

Jeff Brooks, of Vancouver's social planning department, said surveys of street children who seek social services don't indicate a problem on that scale.

But he added: "We wouldn't have any idea of the numbers of kids controlled by pimps who never come in for services or of those kids who come in from the suburbs then leave again. So maybe John Turvey's right."

On the other hand, Ross McInnes thinks the figure might be low.

McInnes, who has just retired as head of the Calgary police vice squad, estimates there are 40,000 Canadian children engaged in the sex trade.

McInnes, an acknowledged police expert on prostitution, said there would be a least 1,500 children working in the Lower Mainland area.

"And that's a very conservative estimate. Your area attracts a lot of children from other parts of Canada and if you take the whole of B.C. there will be at least 2,000 children involved," he said.

The economics of the trade are staggering, McInnes said.

"Four years ago, prostitution and pornography was estimated to be worth more than a billion dollars a year. Out on the street, these girls will earn $3,000 to $5,000 a week. Not that they get to keep the money."

In Vancouver, the traditional prostitute "stroll" used to be the Hastings-Gore-Powell-Victoria area, among the pubs and bars of Skid Road.

Now prostitutes are found along Broadway and on Kingsway as far east as Boundary Road and have filtered into residential areas adjoining those streets.

So many are coming in from the suburbs that the Vancouver vice squad spends 75 per cent of its time working outside the city.

Child prostitutes traditionally come from backgrounds of poverty or from families in which they have experienced sexual abuse.

But now some are coming from well-to-do- families and from good homes.

"This is a new target group -- the naive middle class girl from a decent family who falls for the classic seduction process used by these pimps," McInnes said.

"It's not the fault of the kids, nor is it the fault of their parents. These kids are conned into it. They've been sold a bill of goods.

"These are young girls who find excitement being around older men with nice cars who make them all kinds of promises. These guys get their affection, turn them against their parents and before you know it they are on the street.

"Families have to stop blaming themselves and being embarrassed by what's happened. Their children have been raped and it's time to go after those responsible."

Det. Gord Elias of the Vancouver vice squad said the phenomenon is extremely troubling for police.

"What's happening now is these young girls -- 12 or 13 year old -- are being procured into prostitution while they are at school by kids who aren't much older than they are.

"We call them popcorn pimps. They go to school with these girls and they are doing tremendous damage. Parents have to be aware of it and stop thinking it could never happen to them."

Dian Sowden, who is grieving for a 15-year-old daughter who is both a prostitute and a procurer, wonders why there aren't people out on the streets demanding these children be protected.

"If there were 1,000 whales in trouble, people would be coming from all over, but children being destroyed seems to mean nothing," says Sowden, whose daughter was recruited while a pupil at Ioco Alternative School by a procurer operating at the school's gates.

She left home shortly after turning 13 and hasn't been back since.

"In January, Sowden learned her daughter, then 14, was outside Mailard junior secondary attempting to convince other children to become prostitutes.

Sowden went to the school with her daughter's picture in order to warn staff.

A Coquitlam mother, who asked that her name not be published, said she knows of 22 children from Coquitlam's George Pearkes junior secondary school who have become involved in prostitution in the last two years.

Her daughter was one.

"She was in Grade 8 and had a pager which she kept at school. I knew nothing about it. She was getting calls and making dates with guys for after school or on the weekends or on professional days.

"Someone in the school must have seen her and wondered about it -- I mean how can a kid in Grade 8 afford a pager?"

George Pearkes principal Nancy Fernandes said she was shocked by the mother's estimate that 22 of her students are involved in prostitution.

"I know of two or three students, but not 22," said Fernandes, who started at the school 18 months ago.

But she admitted "parents may know of more than I do."

Sowden, Dion and Rob Prins, a Coquitlam father, have become public activist for parents -- mostly from the Coquitlam-Port Moody area -- struggling with the shame and embarrassment of acknowledging they have a prostitute for a daughter.

Prins said that in the past three years their group has been approached by "150 to 200 parents in the area" whose children have become involved in prostitution.

What consolation these people find comes only from one another.

Individual police officers with genuine sympathy for their plight -- and Openshaw and his vice squad are uniformly well regarded -- are trusted, but none of the parents interviewed had anything but derision for the system -- the courts, the police generally, the social agencies -- they turned to for help.

It is the system these families want changed.

The parents look enviously at Washington state, which has just enacted legislation designed to give parents control over run-away children.

The B.C. government recently announced a $1.7-million program to combat child prostitution.

This program calls for building a safe house on Vancouver's east side where children can stay for a short time and for putting extra money into youth detox programs.

To mothers with daughters on the street, the proposed haven is known as the "Duracell House".

"All it will do is let the girls recharge their batteries so they can go back out on the street again. What we need is a facility in which children are placed for as long as it takes to help them," Sowden said.

"It takes months of intensive counselling to reach these kids after all they've been through."

Children who have submerged themselves in the subculture of the streets, where they are continually manipulated and abused, are in dire psychological distress and often suicidal, she said.

The physical equivalent, Sowden said, is to have been hit by a bus and to be clinging to life by a thread.

"If that happened you wouldn't just take a child to a day clinic. They'd be rushed to emergency and kept in hospital until they recovered."

Social Services Minister Joy McPhail said she has "great empathy with the parents of these children," but she said the government's recently announced Vancouver Action Plan for Sexually Exploited Children is proving to be effective.

"One of our successes is that we have involved youth themselves in the process," she said. "We have doubled the detox services for youth and doubled our resources for the housing registry, as street youth often have nowhere to live."

The minister said two safe houses will soon be operational in Vancouver -- one for native Indian children and another for non-natives.

"They should be ready by the fall," she said.

McPhail said the Vancouver plan is intended as a pilot project to see what works and what doesn't, so a model can be developed for use across the province.

[Vancouver '95] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: January 15, 1996
Last modified: July 2, 1997

CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710