A Halifax mother is on a quest to stop underage prostitution online after discovering her daughter was appearing on classified sites with near-nude images of herself, advertising the sale of her body for money.
"I felt like I died. I felt like part of me died," said Karen. Her name has been changed to protect her identity and the identities of her family members.
A CBC News investigation reveals that the problem of underage prostitution is growing, and police are seeing more girls — some as young as 13 — being exploited.
Karen found out almost a year ago that her teenage daughter was selling sex online. She was told to look up Halifax-area online classified ads under therapeutic services and massages and escorts. She was horrified at what she saw.
"When I saw my daughter's ad, I had a complete meltdown," she told CBC News.
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She said lewd images of her daughter were posted online accompanied by a description and a phone number. Karen said her girl has been paid for sex by johns from all walks of life, even though she was not even old enough to drive.
Karen said she learned that there are many girls — at least 40 — in the area selling their bodies for sex.
"You can tell they're underage," she said. "They're not fully developed. Some of them don't even have hips yet — that's how young they are. And the descriptions, the way they describe themselves. The wording they use — if it's a girl that is underage, they always use the word 'young.'
"I'm shocked at the amount of underage girls in this city that are involved in this, and they come from every lifestyle, not just girls off the street. They come from good homes. Some of these girls are really good, good girls, and that seems to be the type that are preyed upon."
'I've made up secret identities'
Karen said her daughter has witnessed violence and has explained the rampant use of drugs in "the game," as she calls it.
Karen took months off from work to dedicate time to getting her daughter out of the city's seedy underworld. Her daughter says she's out of it, but that isn't enough for Karen. She is pushing to end underage prostitution.
"I've made up secret identities and have contacted a lot of these ads and set up appointments, have gone and recorded the addresses and phone numbers and taken copies of the ads," she said.
"If I find out there's an underage girl there I will call the police. And I have called the police."
Fiona Traynor is chair of the board at Stepping Stone, an outreach organization for sex workers based in Halifax. She said some young girls may be hesitant to come forward because service providers — and all citizens — have a duty to report any prostitution of a minor.
Traynor said that puts a barrier between offering services and being in conflict with the law.
"I'm not suggesting that Stepping Stone as an organization or anybody else in the community shouldn't be reporting underage sex workers. I'm not suggesting that at all," she said.
"I would point out that it does mean that if someone is an underage sex worker, are they most likely to come to a support organization like Stepping Stone or even the police, asking for help and support to get out of it or whatever it is that they want? Because they would then be at risk of potentially being put into foster care, implicating their parents."
'I'm afraid I'm going to die'
Karen, who has been communicating with police for months, is calling for better resources to tackle the issue.
"They're really understaffed and overworked. I don't feel that our special vice unit here has enough people to take care of this problem at all," she said.
"It's a huge frustration, and I do not feel it's hard to shut down these rings at all. If you go on there and you man the ads and you call them and you set up appointments, they give you the addresses. You go to them. I mean it's so easy to find if there's an underaged girl being prostituted out."
Karen hasn't been trained in any way to do the work she's doing. She tries to involve police at every stage but said she has been assaulted and had her life threatened multiple times. Despite that, she isn't prepared to stop.
"I'm afraid I'm going to die … because I won't stand down. I won't step back," she said.
"I don't know if they're going to leave my daughter alone. It seems like when they get one of these girls, when they get a hold of them, they want to keep them because they've already worked them into the system."