StreetReach urges Manitobans to report suspected child exploitation
'It’s very hidden and people just don’t recognize it as quickly as we’d like,' says front-line worker
More Manitobans need to watch for the warning signs of child exploitation and report concerns to authorities, says Jennifer Richardson, manager of the province's High Risk Victims Unit, StreetReach.
"I always tell people … it's better to over-report something than under-report," said Richardson. Child exploitation is a problem across Winnipeg, from Royalwood to the North End, she added.
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"People tend to think that they're in the lower income areas in the city but that's actually not true at all," said Richardson
Her comments come in the wake of the arrest of Raymond Cormier, 53, who is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Tina Fontaine, 15. Winnipeg Police believe Fontaine was sexually exploited before her death.
Stories of children caught up in an underworld of sexual abuse and drugs are all too familiar to Richardson. StreetReach teams searched approximately 2,800 houses in 2014 looking for victims of exploitation.
"It's very hidden and people just don't recognize it as quickly as we'd like," she said.
More children could be rescued from sexual abuse if neighbours and community members report suspicious behaviour to Child and Family Services' 24-hour tip line or to police, said Richardson.
"When you see a child somewhere with someone and … their interactions with that child don't say father-daughter or uncle-niece, report it," she said.
"Both child welfare and police will investigate."
The pattern of abuse
Many exploited children fall into a similar pattern with their abusers, said Richardson.
"[Abusers] very much stigmatize, marginalize, and isolate the girls so they tell the girls that they did this on their own, they make the girls feel like they've been complicit," she said.
Children as young as 13 or 14 are groomed, even brainwashed, to believe their abusers are the only people who will love and care for them, said Richardson. In other cases, perpetrators introduce drugs to children and to create a relationship where children rely on their abusers to satisfy an addiction.
"In the last year we've seen very high numbers of kids using methamphetamine intravenously," she said.
Community members need to keep an eye out for the warning signs: homes inhabited by transient people, where cabs and different cars frequently stop, she said.
"Different people going in and out at not normal hours. Most people are not coming in and out of their house at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning repeatedly," she said.
If you think a child is being harmed or neglected Child and Family Services can be contacted at 1-866-345-9241.