Group homes aim to protect vulnerable teenagers, but they come with their own risks, experts say, as shown by the disappearance of three girls from the same youth centre in Laval, Que.

Some of the missing girls' parents have publicly expressed concerns their daughters have been targeted by street gangs and lured into criminal activity or sexual exploitation.

Sandrine Ricci, a co-ordinator with the Réseau québécois en études féministes, a network that promotes feminist research in Quebec universities, said girls placed in group homes are often more susceptible to sexual exploitation.

"We know for sure that there is a problem in youth centres," Ricci said.

Recruitment from inside and outside

Adolescent girls and young women can be targeted in a number of different ways, by people inside or outside their social circles, youth workers say.

"It can be girls or boys who are used for recruitment," said an author on delinquent teens, René-André Brisebois, who works with Montreal's main French-language youth protection agency, the Centre jeunesse de Montréal.

Brisbois Centre de jeunesse

'It's not all adolescents at risk, that's for sure,' said René-André Brisebois, a youth worker who has written a book about delinquent youth and their parents. (Radio-Canada)

"It's two different processes — one is friendship, one is love."

In some cases, other girls placed at the same youth centre are used by pimps to recruit new prostitutes, explained Jill Hanley, a McGill University professor who specializes in human trafficking.

'All of it is a plan'

Ricci said teenage girls are often lured into prostitution under the pretense of a romantic relationship.

"Recruiting for sex trafficking, prostitution, exploitation — there is a scenario put into place by recruiters," said Ricci. "Often it is a man recruiting a girl and pretending he is actually falling in love with her."

missing group

Young girls in group homes like this one are common targets for recruiters. (Radio-Canada)

The "boyfriend" will often cite debts or life-threatening situations to force his partner into sex trafficking or prostitution, according to Ricci.

The situation leads the girls to think they are voluntarily becoming prostitutes, when that is often not the case.

"All of it is a plan to make her feel it is a choice and that she's being a prostitute voluntarily," Ricci said.

Not everyone at risk

Brisebois said it is important for parents to know that not all teenagers are at risk for prostitution or criminal activity.

"It's young girls who are living with some difficulties. Sometimes it's familial, sometimes it's personal," Brisebois said.

"It's youths who want to test limits, who want to live an adventure – but it's not all adolescents at risk, that's for sure."

Teenage girls who are in vulnerable positions can also see prostitution as a way to support themselves, said Ricci.

"These girls are very often fearing for their lives, but sometimes it's not a life-threatening situation," said Ricci.

"It's a way to make ends meet."

with files from Radio-Canada