Edmonton kids sold as sex workers, as teen prostitution becomes more common
‘We’re having a lot more kids having to find their own resources to meet their basic needs’
Some children who haven't yet reached their teens are being recruited for sex work in Edmonton, as child prostitution becomes more prevalent because of the economic downturn, say frontline workers in social service agencies.
Deb Cautley runs Youth Empowerment and Support Services, and has heard of kids as young as 11 working in the sex trade.
"There's people out there looking to make money," she says. "It's turning our kids into their little cash cows."
In the 20 years Mark Cherrington has worked in youth court in this city, he has met and helped child prostitutes as young as 10.
The exploitation of children has changed in recent years, he says, and now reflects "the echoes of an economic downturn."
The city has grown rapidly and resources haven't kept up.
"We're having a lot more kids having to find their own resources to meet their basic needs," Cherrington says, adding that finding a place to sleep can be challenging in Edmonton, where housing is chronically short.
At the small YESS shelter in Bonnie Doon, which has only 24 beds, some kids are turned away, Cautley says.
"We don't have the resources to keep these kids safe," she says.
'It becomes really insidious'
Even at the shelter, some kids are vulnerable. Cautley says recruiters, typically older men, hang out in the parking lot, or show up at day programs. They befriend kids, who then befriend other kids on their behalf.
"So it becomes really insidious," she says.
Edmonton is just one Alberta community grappling with the problem.
A 56-year-old man was charged with three counts of procuring prostitutes under the age of 18 in Grande Prairie earlier this week.
In a news release, Grande Prairie RCMP say that victimization of vulnerable youth is a "huge concern."
It's also a concern for social service agencies in that city, where directors say there has been a spike in the recruitment of teen prostitutes over the past two years.
Cautley says kids tell YESS staff about the brazen overtures used to lure them into sex work.
"They'll befriend the kids by buying them something to eat or giving them money for drugs, or buying them cigarettes," she says. "They'll invite them to parties. They'll become their friend. But then there will be a cost to that friendship."
Cautley says shelter staff try to discourage such friendships, but once they're forged they're hard to undo.
"You can make a lot of money on the street," she says.
Recruiters have dangerous message
Recruiters, Cautley says, commonly tells kids: "I think you'd be really good at this. You should try this."
Soon the message changes, to: "You owe me. So you're going to go back and earn money to pay back everything I've bought you."
One challenge Cherrington points to is that interactions have become less visible.
"It's not the traditional walking the streets," he says. "The vast majority are on Backpages. It's a lot darker place on the Internet."
He says kids end up being taxied around between johns that way.
YESS worked with police last year to help a girl who was being kept in a tent in a ravine by a man who sold her as a prostitute, Cautley says.
'Prey on weak people'
"She was developmentally delayed and she was blind," she says. "They prey on weak people."
The girl wasn't from Alberta. She stayed at YESS until her parents could come and get her.
"Often these young people are moved from city to city, province to province, so sometimes it's hard to catch up to them," she says.
Cautley says people are surprised to hear that human trafficking happens in Alberta.
"Understand and accept that this does happen in our community," she says.
People who see something suspicious, someone who stops kids on the street, something that just doesn't look right, should trust their instincts. They should interrupt the interaction. Or call the police.
"Have that courage to talk about things that don't feel right. It might be fine and perfectly innocent, but it might not be," she says.