York Regional Police say 104 men were arrested "for purchasing prostituted children" in a child sex trafficking investigation that lasted four years.
Det.-Sgt. Thai Truong, spokesperson for York Regional Police, said undercover officers put ads online to find men looking for escorts. The sting was part of what police call Project Raphael.
When men responded to the ads, they were told that they were talking to children, aged 13 to 16. Most of the men stopped communicating at that point. The officers involved were undercover agents.
Truong said there were no actual victims in the police investigation.
"All of the men that were arrested were arrested for essentially attempting to purchase prostituted children. So if we look at it from another perspective, from a preventative measure, we've stopped 104 men from purchasing 104 children," he told reporters at York Regional Police headquarters in Aurora, Ont.
The men charged ranged in age from 18 to 71. Many of the men were married and they were from all kinds of occupations. Nearly all of the men were first offenders and sentences ranged from three months to seven months.
A total of 64 cases are still before the courts, while 40 cases have been resolved. A total of 32 accused men pleaded guilty, five cases were withdrawn, three went to trial and were found guilty.
Most of the arrests were in York Region, but some of the accused came from across the Greater Toronto Area and others from outside of Ontario, police said.
Human trafficking called 'ugly world'
"The biggest challenge for us when we're dealing with prostituted children is that enlisting their co-operation is very, very difficult. Getting them to trust me, getting them to tell us what has happened is challenging," he said.
Through the project, police were trying to take the onus off the children and "go after the men that are driving this industry."
Truong said human trafficking destroys lives.
"The world of human trafficking is an ugly world," he said.
He said social media is playing a growing role in human trafficking. "If they're using social media, the pimps are trolling. Every day, there's some other application out there."
Project Raphael began in 2014 as one effort by police to combat child sex trafficking. The project involved: rescuing victims; identifying and charging those who traffic children; and identifying and charging those who attempted to purchase sex with children.
In many cases, police said those involved in prostitution are forced into the sex trade through violence, threats of violence, coercion and trickery.
Project sheds light on demand
Susan Orlando, provincial co-ordinator of the human trafficking prosecution team at Ontario's attorney general ministry, said the project has "shone a light" on the demand for sex with children that exists in York Region and the surrounding area.
"These girls experience significant and long lasting trauma from which most never recover. Young lives are irreparably damaged, some completely destroyed and some lost completely," she said.
"Exploiting the most vulnerable segments of our society and our youth for personal gain, whether it's for a John's sexual gratification or a pimp's financial gain, is among the most abhorrent criminal conduct and transgression of our moral code that exists in our society today."
Const. Andy Pattenden, spokesperson for York Regional police, credited investigators for their work.
"They're passionate about it. The team in our vice unit is second to none and they've been recognized for their efforts," Pattenden said.
A grant from the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services helped fund the investigation, police said.
Anyone with information is asked to contact York Regional Police's vice unit at 1-866-876-5423, ext.7817, or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS.