Winnipeg police arrest 4 in sex trade sweep, find 3 at-risk youth

Winnipeg police have arrested four men and taken three at-risk youth to a safe place.

One of suspected 'johns' is 83 years old

Winnipeg police spokesperson Eric Hofley said 4 men were arrested Thursday in a sweep of the sex trade, and 3 youth at risk of being sexually exploited were found and taken to safety. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC )

Winnipeg police have arrested four men and returned three girls at risk of sexual exploitation to their homes. 

It's the latest sweep in Project Return, a joint project that aims to protect young people at high risk of being sexually exploited.

The four arrested, all men, are suspected of communicating for the purpose of engaging in prostitution. 

Police said the three girls, each of whom had been reported missing, have been returned to their legal guardians.

The girls were found after police checked 26 addresses for missing youth.

Four vehicles were also seized. 

One of the men arrested Thursday was 83. The others were  21, 28, and 48 years old. 

Constable Eric Hofley said the range of ages is not surprising. 

"The people that are out there using the services of these women are doing so for a variety of reasons, and therefore, you're going to run the spectrum from the young person right up until the oldest of our society."

Hofley said police do not target sex trade workers themselves. 

"[They] are victims in and of themselves," he said. "And therefore, we are concentrating on those people who are out there attempting to exploit them."

Victimized girls "sitting ducks in Winnipeg" 

Rosalind Prober of Beyond Borders, which advocates on behalf of sexually exploited children and youth, said many vulnerable young women who turn to the sex trade, take enormous risks to survive. 

"They're often trafficked," she said. "They're into sex for survival. They're looking for food, a place to say, someone to be nice to them."

Police said the girls have been returned to their legal guardians.

Prober said often when children or youth are returned to a safe haven, the aim is to provide them with treatment or counselling.

"But unfortunately the issue is that often the children don't stay," Prober said. "They move on or they run away. It's a short term solution."

Prober said young people and children who end up in the sex trade often come from environments where they've been sexually abused. 

"It's a tragic circle: you find them, you try to channel them in the right direction, but because of previous damage these children have suffered, they're out there on the street, sexually exploited."

It's a reality for far too many young people in Winnipeg, she said. 

"They really are in Winnipeg sitting ducks. And that's a real tragedy in our community," she said. 

Thursday's arrests come on the heels of the death of Tina Fontaine.

The 15-year-old's body was pulled from the Red River last month.

Fontaine was reported missing before she was killed, and police say she was being exploited.

There have been no arrests in the teen's case. 

Groups work to break cycle of abuse

The arrests this week are the result of a joint effort between police and StreetReach Winnipeg, which works to protect at-risk youth. It is comprised of a number of organizations including the Child Protection Branch, All Nations Coordinated Response Network, MaryMound Inc., Mamawi and MARTR (Manitoba Association for Residential Treatment Resources).

"These people are out there dedicating their lives, trying to make lives better for these women," he said. "They're out there last year, previous to Tina's death, they're out there yesterday and they will continue to do that work," Hofley said. 

He said everyone can help police try to break the cycle of abuse. 

"Understand, with a lot of these missing youth, they're out there and they're housed, kept by people, friends, family, and that sort of thing when they should be in care."

Hofley said if you have concerns about a girl in your home or neighbourhood, call police.