Nova Scotia

'We need to do something': Stepping Stone seeks to help youth in sex trade

The Halifax organization currently offers services to sex workers who are over 18. But there is concern that the number of youth in the sex trade is rising.

Halifax organization explores changing mandate so it can help trafficking victims between 16 and 18

Wanda Taylor is the executive director of Stepping Stone. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

A Halifax organization that offers support and programming to people involved in the sex trade is seeking new ways to help what it says are the growing number of youth involved in sex work.

Wanda Taylor is executive director of Stepping Stone, which offers services to sex workers who are over 18. But it is currently exploring options to change its mandate so that it can help youth between 16 and 18.

"I think that we have a handle on what it is that we can provide for youth, preventive measures as well as support for them if they're already involved," she said.

Stepping Stone currently offers various services to sex workers. It may include counselling on how to leave prostitution, but the organization also supports the choice of those who want to remain in the trade and offers harm-reduction help.

The issue with those under 18 is by law they cannot consent to sex work and are considered trafficked victims. It means Stepping Stone, under its current mandate, could find itself in a difficult position by supporting someone under 18.

Condoms are distributed for free at Stepping Stone. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Dametre Peverill is an outreach worker at Stepping Stone — she's also experienced the lack of services available to youth.

When Peverill was 13, she started working in the sex trade. She said that at first it felt empowering to have her own money.

"I had control for the first time in what felt like my whole life, and it was a really good feeling … at that point in my life."

But starting at 14, Peverill said she was trafficked. She said by the time it came to an end at 16 "I was left broken and I definitely wanted to get out."

But without support services for youth, she had few places to turn.

"There was no help for me at 16, there was no way for me to pay my bills, there was nowhere for me to go, there was no solution other than to continue doing sex work."

'It's a hopeless situation'

Peverill said now, when she's out in the community offering Stepping Stone services, she has to check the age of potential clients.

"Having to close that door right away as soon as you find out they're not of age, it's a hopeless situation," she said. 

Taylor said Stepping Stone is receiving an increasing number of calls from families and youth looking for help. Right now, there's little the organization can offer and few alternatives it can suggest.

"We do a lot of referral services as well, but there's almost nowhere to refer a young person," she said. "We need to at some point step in and say, 'OK, enough is enough, they need our help, and we need to do something.'"

Taylor and Peverill are participating in a panel Thursday on the lack of support and services for youth. It takes place at Dalhousie University and begins at 6 p.m.