Behind the scenes: StreetReach searches for missing kids in Winnipeg

CBC's Caroline Barghout went out with StreetReach, an agency tasked with trying to find and take high-risk kids off the streets of Winnipeg. The following is an account of that night.

Provincial high-risk victims unit dedicated to locating missing kids, investigating offenders

CBC's Caroline Barghout went out with StreetReach, an agency tasked with trying to find and take high-risk kids off the streets of Winnipeg, on Aug. 27. The following is an account of that night.

It's 7 p.m. on a Thursday and just about everybody in the family services building on Portage Avenue has gone home for the day. But not Manitoba child exploitation specialist Jennifer Richardson.

She's just called a briefing with three members of her StreetReach team. It's a specialized unit tasked with locating at risk and missing kids and bringing them to safety.

On this night, their focus is on a 16-year-old exploited girl they learned had been taken to Vancouver by human traffickers but had recently returned to Winnipeg. Richardson worries she'll be trafficked out of Manitoba again.

"We believe that she is here now, and the possibility of someone attempting to move her is high so we've involved Winnipeg police, RCMP, our agency and the airport authority people to notify us if she does attend to the airport," Richardson said.

Often times if kids are being trafficked, they look very compliant. They don't look like they're in distress- Jennifer Richardson, Manitoba child exploitation specialist

In the meantime, Richardson and three front-line workers hit the streets of Winnipeg searching for the girl.

They are dressed in plain clothes and travel in unmarked cars. They are not police officers but have the authority to apprehend under the family services act even if the child does not want to go with them.

"We recognize that [kids] don't, at the time, think they need help because of the resocialization ... but until they're 18, we have a responsibility to make sure they have that help," Richardson said. "It usually has been my experience, working in the field, when you keep repeating — you don't give up on them. Eventually they have enough negative experiences in the sex trade that they want out." 

Their first stop is the downtown nightclub Shark Club, where the teen was spotted the night before.

"We have confirmed that it was the Shark Club, that she was in the bar. That indicates to us she has fake ID. She's got some way to get in 'cause they do check ID at that club," said Richardson.

Jennifer Richardson holds a briefing with her StreetReach team. (CBC)
Their next stop is the Delta Hotel on St. Mary Avenue. The hotel manager recognizes the girl's photo and tells the StreetReach team the teen paid in cash for a room a month ago.

"Often times if kids are being trafficked, they look very compliant. They don't look like they're in distress. Often times, they don't look like they are a victim so people would not — people [who] are not trained to look for some of the indicators we would look for would probably walk by that child and never believe the child is in distress at all. Not thinking the child was being trafficked at all," Richardson said.

StreetReach was created in 2009 and consists of seven front-line workers. It's modeled after the Dallas Police Department's high risk victims unit. Richardson, who is a trained social worker, was brought in from another family services department to help form Manitoba's specialized unit.

"We knew there was a need, and the reason there's a need is because we need to go after the men who are offending against the kids and that's a large part of what we do," said Richardson.

In 2013 to 2014, StreetReach identified 242 exploited Manitoba at risk children. 102 were confirmed to be sexually exploited. The remaining 140 were found to be at a very high risk of sexual exploitation. The team also identified 92 offenders. 

On average, StreetReach will visit 20 to 30 addresses a day in search of missing kids. 

Their focus is exploited kids and work hand-in-hand with the Winnipeg Police Service, RCMP and The Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

Jennifer Richardson briefs the front line StreetReach team on a missing and exploited girl they must search for. (CBC)
"We only tend to spend a large resource time on kids we feel are at a large risk. We do look for kids or intervene with kids that are not exploited but are just missing as a way to prevent them from becoming further at risk of exploitation 'cause we know that children who are missing are at a very high risk to become exploited," said Richardson. 

Richardson has worked with exploited kids for 13 years and helped pull many out of the sex trade and away from traffickers, who she says groom their victims and eventually brainwash them.

"Men who are offending, or people who are offending against children in this way, are spending large amounts of time grooming the kids so that the kids believe that this person cares about them. This person believes that they're special, and they essentially go through a brainwashing process. I call it being resocialized into the sex trade," Richardson said.

After two hours on the road searching for the missing girl, the team calls it a night. A relative tells them the teen is expected to return home later that evening.

They notify police and ask officers to return to the home to apprehend the girl, which they do.

Predators find teen targets online

"If you're seeing a child that's at risk offline, you immediately need to assume that that type of behaviour and conduct is occurring online" said Signy Arnason, the associate executive director at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. "These are not the children that are putting the necessary precautions in place to protect themselves so they're inherently vulnerable."

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has seen an increase in reports of at-risk teens representing themselves as adults online, by posting ads on adult dating websites like Plenty of Fish and Craigs List and smart phone apps like Tinder. They then become targets of sex offenders. 
Jennifer Richardson, Child Sexual Exploitation Specialist searches for missing and exploited 16-year-old girl. (CBC)

"This is not a complex scenario whereby children are being duped. They're open. They're putting out information that says to any offender, 'This kid's at risk and vulnerable.' And guess what? That is the perfect target for me, if that's what I'm interested in," said Arnason.

According to Arnason, child predators scour social media sites like Facebook, checking "status updates" in search of vulnerable teens who haven't locked their personal pages from strangers' views.

There isn't one "type" of teen being targeted. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection sees kids from good homes with attentive parents fall victim to offenders just the same as teens with disengaged caregivers who've been bounced from home to home, she said. 

"It's right here, right in our circle, right in our community. It's our neighbours. It could be with in our own home. This is what's happening. You don't have one in four girls and one in five boys having experienced some form of sexual abuse or exploitation, and it's a distant problem" said Arnason.

About 80 percent of the sexually exploited images analyzed by are taken in home settings.

Arnason said without access to vulnerable teens and time alone with them, offenders wouldn't be able to exploit or victimize them.

She wants to see more people reporting underage ads to content providers to force the site to take them down.
StreetReach searches a downtown hotel for a missing and exploited girl. (CBC)

"We need to be applying pressure. Saying, 'This person looks underage. This isn't acceptable,' needs to be done," Arnason said.

She would also like to see a shift in the way society views teenagers who've fallen victim to sexual predators.

"We have to become way more sympathetic to teens that make mistakes," Arnason said. "We're less apt to see teenagers as vulnerable, and we almost hold them responsible, and it's like they're culpable in the behaviour. And I think we've got to change that because there are a variety of reasons why teenagers are at a higher risk of being victimized, and adults have an important role to play in that." 

Everyone can play a role

Arnason said while we will never rid the world of sexual predators, everyone can play a role in protecting our children and youth.
Signy Arnason, Assoc. Exec. Dir. of The Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (CBC)

"I think anyone can be engaged in this issue and make a difference ... the kid that's entering your hotel that comes up to the desk and are underage, well that should raise some very significant red flags," Arnason said.

The Winnipeg Police Service missing persons unit also works closely with StreetReach. 

Officers and outreach workers join forces on a daily basis to locate missing kids. They've also done pro-active work together to develop strategies to prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth.

Along with the counter exploitation unit, they've launched "Project Return" several times per year.

"This project is a pro-active, multi-agency effort designed to protect youth within our city who are deemed to be at high risk of sexual exploitation" said Const. Eric Hofley.


Caroline Barghout

Investigative Reporter, CBC Manitoba I-Team

Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: