CBC News has obtained an alarming report about sexual exploitation in Newfoundland and Labrador that the provincial government funded three years ago and then locked away, citing public safety concerns.
The province commissioned and paid for the 2011 report, titled "It's Nobody's Mandate and Everyone's Responsibility: Sexual Exploitation and the Sex Trade in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
More than 100 key informants were interviewed between December 2010 and April 2011.
Those key informants included "representatives of youth-serving agencies, aboriginal organizations, shelters, women's organizations, social workers, health-care providers, housing agencies, teachers, RCMP, RNC [Royal Newfoundland Constabulary] and the Department of Justice."
Researchers also interviewed victims of sexual exploitation.
The report made a number of recommendations, including programs to provide protection and support for those working in the sex trade, and suggestions to help workers trying to exit the industry.
‘Harmful to individual or public safety’
CBC Investigates in Newfoundland and Labrador asked the province for a copy of the report.
But the Women’s Policy Office declined, saying the entire report is covered by an exemption in access-to-information law dealing with disclosures “harmful to individual or public safety.”
The entire 120 pages are exempt from release, officials noted, but a copy was obtained by CBC Investigates.
Here are some of the researchers’ findings the government maintains that are too sensitive to release:
- Mentoring programs must be established for potentially vulnerable children and youth.
- All governments must take responsibility in establishing 24-hour help lines working in conjunction with crisis intervention services and outreach teams.
- "The healing process involves finding the source of the problem."
- Children or youth at high risk for sexual exploitation must be identified by those with authority and ability to intervene.
The report calls for a number of programs or supports, including:
- Help for those in the sex trade, such as a 24-hour drop-in centre for youth and a street nurse program.
- Emergency housing for people trying to leave the sex trade.
- Laws to permit anonymous testing for sexually transmitted infections and HIV.
- A single agency in charge of dealing with exploitation.
The report also makes a series of suggestions for possible changes to the justice system, and repeatedly cites the issue of 16-year-olds left to live alone as a problem.
For excerpts of those recommendations, see below.
Protecting the public?
Laura Winters, a PhD candidate who researches sex work, was given a copy of the report in 2011.
She was hoping to use it at conferences. But a few days later, Winters says, she was told to return her copy, and was then put under a gag order.
"I can't see sitting on this report; it's alarming," she said.
"It calls for action, it calls for governmental action. You know, to really sit there and do nothing, you are re-victimizing the people who have had these experiences. They've come forward against all stigma and the stereotypes and the discrimination that these people experience when they come forward with their stories ... And by sitting on it, the government is saying, 'You know, really, you don't matter. It doesn't matter that this is happening in this province, and you know, we're not really going to do anything about it.'"
Winters says the 120-page report into sexual exploitation in the province is the only research of its kind, and is “vital, critical evidence” of a problem that is not being addressed by proper supports and services.
'I'm not sure whose safety they're protecting, but it's certainly not the public's, and it's certainly not the safety of the people involved here.' - Laura Winters, researcher
The authors note that informants were "virtually unanimous in their call for a co-ordinated, collaborative response to the issues. Representatives from every sector spoke about the need to share information and work together."
The report concludes: "It's not enough to be compassionate. We must act."
Winters says she doesn't know why the government is keeping the report under wraps.
"I'm not sure whose safety they're protecting, but it's certainly not the public's, and it's certainly not the safety of the people involved here," Winters said.
"By keeping this under wraps, the government is allowing it to happen in the province unchecked. They're allowing it to go without anyone speaking about it, which is quite dangerous - the public really doesn't have knowledge that this is happening. They're preventing adequate services from being put in place. By not really doing anything real about this issue, the government is endangering people. They're not protecting anyone by holding this report at all."
Winters says the first step would be to release the report and get people talking.
She says too much time has already been wasted, and the victims of exploitation who stood up and spoke to the researchers are disheartened.
“I even had one person say to me, ‘You know, I knew nothing was going to come of this. The government wasn't ready and the public's not ready to hear my truth and the reality of my situation,’” Winters said.
"So if people are feeling that way, and then lending their stories to this report, and then nothing's happening, it's confirming for them that they're not full citizens in this society, and that they don't deserve justice and respect like the rest of us do."