Teen prostitution a growing concern in Grande Prairie

Tanya Wald has seen it happen - the brazen recruitment of teenagers for prostitution right outside of the doors of the youth shelter she runs in Grande Prairie.

‘We assume things like child luring and prostitution are big city problems’

The City of Grande Prairie’s crime prevention office has a Report-A-John program in place. (CBC)

Tanya Wald has seen it happen — the brazen recruitment of teenagers right outside of the doors of the youth shelter she runs in Grande Prairie.

"I think part of being in sort of that smaller city is people don't expect these things to happen so we ignore it," Wald says.

"We assume things like child luring and prostitution are big city problems and so we don't put a lot of time into educating and doing prevention around those things and then so all of a sudden we'll see a spike in it."

A few years ago the city set up a Report-a-John program in place.

Wald says some residents don't even register that there are homeless youth in Grande Prairie, a city of 68,000 people, 430 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

"A lot of people are shocked that we have homeless youth here," said Wald who runs Sunrise House.

In 2015, Sunrise House, which has 10 beds, was at capacity 90 per cent of the time. Over the course of that year, 170 youth checked in.

Wald says her staff have blunt conversations with the youth about what to watch out for.  

Expectation of return

"We often have clients come in and they'll say, 'Oh, I met these people and they gave me free cigarettes or they gave me drugs or bought me food and then don't want anything in return'," Wald says.

"So we have a lot of conversations about that and that often times what seems to be free and this person being kind will eventually turn into an expectation of return."  

"The victimization of vulnerable youth in the community is a huge concern," RCMP said in a press release Tuesday.

This week, police charged a 56-year-old man with three counts of procuring prostitution of someone under the age of 18.

Police say the man was targeting vulnerable teen boys and was under surveillance Sunday when police intervened to rescue a boy they say was at risk of becoming a victim.

The man was released with conditions, including that he will not have contact with minors unless accompanied by another adult.

Prostitutes getting younger

From women who stop by HIV North's sex-trade-worker drop-in program, Melissa Byers hears that the girls on the street in Grande Prairie are getting younger and younger.

Byers, who runs the organization, says that's not her only source.

HIV North covers a broad region, and recently held a parents nights in the Fox Creek area, about halfway between Grande Prairie and Edmonton, to talk about diversity and sexuality.

"What we were told is since the oil field dropped off, they've heard more stories about young girls and young boys being pushed into the sex trade," she said.

Byers says it's important to have conversations about sex, sexuality and drug use.

"We're hearing of younger and younger teenagers and kids starting to use fentanyl and taking a pill at a party and getting hooked on fentanyl or getting hooked on other things," she said.

"It's a bit of a different age than what I grew up in and I'm only 32."

'In exchange they basically got me'

But for Ashley Richards, who is from the same generation, it's not that different.

As a little blue-eyed, blond girl growing up in Grande Prairie, she rode her bike to the beach with her brothers and she went to the movies.

"I was just your typical kid. If you would have told me that within 10 years I would be a drug addict whose body was being sold and living on the streets, I would have never, I would have never believed you," she said.

When Richards was 16 years old, she was skipping school with friends at the mall when they met a group of a older men.

"It was purposeful. It wasn't an accident. They were going to the mall to try to find young girls who weren't in school who maybe didn't have parental support to try to keep them out of those kinds of dangerous situations," she said.

The men invited her and her friends to parties, where they drank alcohol and took drugs.

"It wasn't just me. It was actually my entire circle of friends. There were actually about eight to 10 of us who got wrapped up in this," said Richards, who started dating one of the men, moving in with him and helping him sell drugs.

"The selling drugs escalated and at that time anybody who wanted to use drugs with him, he would invite them to use drugs with them so they would pay for the drugs and in exchange they basically got me."

Richards, now a fourth-year social work student at the University of Calgary, wants to raise awareness. She travels to local schools and  to share her story and wants people to know there is help.

"This does happen here, but there is help," she said.

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell