Let’s talk about the elephant in the room that no-one wants to acknowledge; child sex trafficking. I know it’s an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but so is being beaten, drugged and raped by pimps and pedophiles under the guise of freedom of choice. In this article we’ll examine this growing trend, and look at some ways you can educate yourself, fellow officers, and your children how to reduce their risk of being targeted for a life of abuse and degradation, and help those that have been lured into the game.

One sex trade worker when interviewed stated “for every 10 women who are rescued there are 50-100 more brought in by sex traffickers.” Canadian stats around this growing problem state that between 800-1600 children are trafficked every year. Personally I feel this statistic is woefully under estimated for reasons that have more to do with keeping up appearances and politics than truth. Don’t assume that because you work in law enforcement that your children won’t become targets for recruitment.

I’ve worked as an intelligence officer in a maximum security facility for more than 25 years and part of my portfolio is gangs, organized crime, and human trafficking. I also work and consult for a number of committees and organizations dealing with this growing problem and can tell you unequivocally that our daughters and sisters are being hunted, recruited and exploited every day.

I constantly receive missing person’s reports and alerts on girls as young as 12-13 and can attest to the fact that recruiters and pimps are active in every city and town in the country. Laws such as C 36 (Based on the Nordic model for the sex trade) will go a long way to taking some of the human predators that exploit our youth off the street, but it’s only a temporary solution. On average pimps and traffickers don’t do a lot of time in prison and are put right back out onto the street to continue their predations.

The average age for girls to be lured into the sex trade in Canada is 12. If this is a shocking number then you need to look at the bigger picture. 12 is only the mean average age for recruitment; this means that there are girls as young as 9, or 10 being targeted in our schools, malls, group homes, foster homes, and social media. Despite what you may have been led to believe no-one enters into the sex trade willingly. Oh they may have gotten involved with pimps and gang members for a place to sleep, food, or drugs but you’ll never convince me that there is full disclosure of the risks associated with the sex trade discussed prior to their recruitment.

Coupled with the fact that minors can’t legally consent to any contract and you’ve got a whole load of hogwash designed to deflect the fact that some men in North America like sexually abusing children and we’re doing a pitiful job of protecting them. We don’t hear a lot about this problem in the media. Typically if it’s reported at all stories are focused on foreign sex trafficking. The reality is that child sex trafficking is one of the most profitable and fastest growing aspects of organized crime and primarily perpetrated by large criminal gangs who fund, support, and provide resources to street gangs outlaw motorcycle gangs, and pimps.

Sex trafficking is the third most profitable criminal enterprise in the world; eclipsed only by gun and drug trafficking. The truth is that young girls (and boys) are exposed to STI’s (Sexually Transmitted Infections), sexual assault, unwanted pregnancies, physical abuse, torture, and risk death each and every time they are sold; sometimes for as little as $25. Some of these children are forced to have sex with up to 20 men a night to meet their quotas, while their pimps can earn $120,000-$280,000 per year for each girl they force into sex.

In order to feed the constant demand for fresh young faces in the sex trade, trafficking has followed the drug trafficking model and is highly mobile and decentralized. Girls are moved from city to city, province to province, as well as internationally to keep them dependent upon their traffickers and to attempt to avoid law enforcement interdiction. This is what is known as the circuit. If you look on any of the big boards that advertise sex for sale (Back pages, PERB, SP 411) you’ll see exactly what I mean. Later we’ll look at how you can make it more difficult for pimps and pedophiles to access your children, and what you can do as a law enforcement officers to recognize and help victims of child sex trafficking.

  • It is estimated that in North America every two minutes a child is exploited by sex traffickers. This statistic alone should be cause for change, but once again no one is reporting on the ugly truth. It’s easy to ignore or brush off things that make us uncomfortable. In the last week alone, I’ve spoken with no less than 10 people whose children are at risk of being exploited and want help getting them out of danger. Young girls are being sold in hotels, motels, private homes, pizza parlors, schools, and almost any location you can think of, and most of society continues to be willfully oblivious.
  • One expert estimates that the life expectancy of a child sold for sex is seven years. If you’re a parent then you’d better have a close look at your sons and daughters, because many of them at the ripe old age of 10 would be considered middle aged by these standards. Just because we are law enforcement officers it doesn’t mean our children are at any less risk for recruitment. So this begs the question “what will you do?” Not what can you do, because this line of thinking is a cop out and not going to change a thing. My friend Natasha Falle, who runs Sex Trade 101, has been instrumental in changing Canada’s prostitution laws and has demonstrated over and over again that one person can make a difference.

Now that we’ve quantified the scope of the problem it’s time to look at how you as a law enforcement officer can recognize the signs and symptoms of trafficking and educate your children, schools, and law makers on what they need to do to combat it.

First of all pay attention to Social Media. Social Media is not the problem it’s the medium that gives pimps, recruiters and pedophiles the access they need to begin grooming kids. Some of the most popular sites for young people are the ones you should most closely watch. The following lists some of the more popular Social Media sites for youth that have been utilized by pimps and sex traffickers to find and procure victims.

  • Instagram: Similar to Facebook in that teens get likes and comments on their photos. For anyone this attention can be addictive and may cause them to post more inappropriate material as a means of gaining self-esteem. The service places photos as “public” unless security settings are altered. Most teens have public settings to increase the exposure of their photos and videos.

The use of hashtags and location based software can make information visible to a wide variety of strangers that the children posting didn’t intend as their audience. With the addition of private messaging teens may be convinced to share sexually explicit content with their circles regardless of the rules outlining the terms of service. Strangers can also message teens and they can decide whether to open the pictures or messages sent.

In a recent Canadian case three teen girls were charged with 74 counts of sex trafficking, forcible confinement and procuring for prostitution. Forensic analysis of their cell phones showed the girls utilized their cell phones and Social Media including Instagram to lure 9 girls between the ages of 13-17 into prostitution.

  • Snapchat: A video and picture board, it allows anyone to post their material and to place time limits on them before they disappear from the web. Part of the problem with this line of thought is that nothing truly disappears from the web. Data is data and once it’s out there it can be retrieved without too much difficulty. As it’s viewed as risk free messaging, teens may be tempted to engage in sexting or sending sexually explicit images.
  • Kik: An app based solution to texting that some teens find appealing. Some of the apps like “Oink Text” allow teens to communicate and share photos and information with strangers looking for teens to chat with. User names often display the teen’s full name making it a lot easier to contact them outside of the virtual world.
  • Yik Yak: A location based Social Media site that allows anyone to post anything they like and have it viewed by up to 500 people within a 1.5 mile location of the post. It has everything from cyber-bullying, graphic sexual content and poses the unintended problem of users sharing their location when posting.
  • Omegle: A popular chat site that puts random strangers together in a video chat room or texting situation. The site is supposedly anonymous and this is a big draw for teens. It also features “interest” boxes that lets chat partners filter their results by what they want to chat about. The app is loaded with people looking for sexting and sexually explicit conversations, due to its anonymity the topics of conversation tend to be a lot more graphic than those where users are identified.

Now I don’t want to give you the impression that all Social Media is dangerous to your kids. The reality is that pimps and sex traffickers have myriad ways of introducing themselves to children and Social Media is only one. Some of the other methods that traffickers use to gain access to children are quite inventive and ruthlessly effective in separating them from friends, family and any hope of escape.

Sometimes traffickers will befriend teens either through Social Media, or by meeting them at malls, or other places young people gather without adults around to supervise. Often referred to as “Romeo Pimps,” these predators will go out of their way to make teens feel special by showing them a lot of attention, buying gifts, or offering a place to live. Later on comes the demand that they need to have sex in order to pay back what they owe, or to keep the couple in the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to. This is also known as “Recruitment via Vulnerability.”

A young woman who I worked closely with was lured into the sex trade in this manner. Her “boyfriend” was a gang member who systematically broke down her self-esteem under the guise of “love” and was able to convince her to begin stripping and escorting as a means to “help” the couple pay their bills. The gang member was eventually convicted of forcible confinement and sexual assault on two 13 year old girls, while his “girlfriend” was murdered and left in a ditch far away from those who loved her.

Others predators utilize drugs and alcohol in order to get young women addicted or as a means to overcome their resistance to the concept of sex for money. Many traffickers and pimps are smooth, intelligent, and extremely manipulative. Many are also heavily involved in drug trafficking and other index crimes that surround prostitution. This makes it a vicious circle for those brought into the game, as once they are addicted, they will have few options other than being sold in order to gain access to the drugs they need to numb themselves to the pain and abuse they suffer.

Pimps will capitalize on the rebelliousness of youth and encourage teens into increasingly risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sex with multiple partners). While it’s important to note that many teens will engage in high risk behaviors with no consequences whatsoever, some will fall prey to older more manipulative individuals who will utilize this rebelliousness as an opportunity to break them down and utilize their addiction as a means to keep them in the sex trade. This is known as “Recruitment via Acceptance and Addiction.”

Traffickers and pimps will also use young girls already involved in trafficking to lure other young vulnerable girls into the life. It is estimated that up to 71% of all recruitment is committed by someone known to the intended victim. When you think about it this makes a great deal of sense. It is far more likely your children will trust a friend or acquaintance than they would a complete stranger. Often referred to as a “Top Girl” these so called friends will begin to introduce their intended victim to the world of sex trafficking by telling them how easy it is to have a “Daddy” that will pay for everything they want. Eventually they are introduced to the pimp and made a part of their stable.

“Gorilla Pimps” are the violent abusive traffickers who utilize fear and intimidation to keep girls in line. They use sexual assault, beatings, deprivation and a plethora of torture tactics to break their victims down and coheres them into complying with their demands. Girls can be beaten or sexually assaulted for looking at another man or speaking out of turn. I’ve listened to the horrendous stories of girls that were gang raped, stabbed, had fingers cut off, burned with cigarettes, and undergone forced miscarriages as well as many other forms of torture too horrible to put into words.

This then begs the problem of how you can keep your kids, or those you work with out of the hands of these predatory pimps and pedophiles. It’s both harder and easier than you might think. Don’t be deluded into thinking that children are safe in the foster care system, child protective services, or the criminal justice system. In many cases this just exposes them to the predators they need protection from. Some studies indicate that up to 30% of youth living in shelters and 70% of youth living on the street will engage in “survival sex” in order to make it through another day.

First you need to know what to look for, and not be afraid to talk to your kids. Knowledge, education and having an honest relationship with your children are the best ways to reduce their risk. Look at the tragic case of 15 year old Tina Fontaine from Winnipeg. She was found passed out in a back alley and referred to children’s services after getting out of the hospital. Instead of being returned to her home or provided the care and supervision she so desperately needed, she was put up in a hotel with no supervision, and left the hotel that same night. She was last seen leaving the West End with a strange man. Her body was later recovered from the Red River six days after her disappearance.

Some of the signals that children are at risk for recruitment are;

  • A history of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. These children are already conditioned to the lifestyle they will be placed in and are simply trading one abuser for another.
  • A history of running away from home or group homes. I know of several pimps in Calgary who actively target group homes, shelters, malls and other locations that children commonly run from, or to. The streets are a dangerous place and every night 300 children are left to sleep outside, access shelters, or do what they have to in order to survive another night.
  • Unexplained extravagant gifts, clothing, or money. Gifting is a tool used to gain the child’s trust and begin the process of rapport building. Unfortunately rapport building is often given far too much positive press. It’s imperative to understand that rapport building is a “Social Strategy,” and is always about the person attempting to establish it, not the recipient.
  • Signs of sexually transmitted infections or current abuse. This is not to say that every child who develops and STI or is in an abusive relationship is being trafficked. It is however a sign that they are in to something well over their heads and need your help to deal with it.
  • Signs of gang activity. I work with a lot of gang members, and while they will categorically deny any involvement with sex trafficking, I can tell you that in Canada 30% of all child sex trafficking is directly related to the presence of street gangs. What this means is that a lot of these young gang members are lying and looking to distance themselves from activities that even they see as unsavory. Drugs = Gangs period and drugs are just another money maker and tool used to get and keep children addicted in order to make money. Gangs are a business and their business is the ruthless exploitation of anything and anyone they can profit from. It’s also important to understand that many street gangs are directly employed by larger organized crime gangs including those involved in the sex trade.
  • History of having an older boyfriend or girlfriend. Although it may seem cool for a young person to think an older boyfriend is showing interest in them, it really behooves you to tell them the truth. The only reason a 28 year old man has any interest in a 14 year old girl is what she can provide for him, and that is generally sex or as a means of making money. Let your children know that if these older romantic interests are so amazing, then why aren’t people their own age lining up to date them. They are looking for someone with less life experience who they can control and manipulate.

When I speak at conferences to parents and educators I always tell them their best weapons against sex trafficking are love and open communication. Communication does not mean that you will agree with everything that you hear or condone it. It simply means that you are there to listen and guide the child on the path that will help them mature safely. This is a hard concept for adults to grasp. We tend to tell our children things rather than listening to what they have to say. My grandmother used to tell me that we have two eyes, two ears and only one mouth. The moral of this story is that we should listen and observe twice as much as we speak.

Talk to your kids about the realities of sex trafficking and encourage them to talk to you about any behavior that makes them scared or uncomfortable. Too many times children are afraid they will be judged for making a bad call and don’t tell parents or other care givers what is going on. In most cases children are exposed by someone close to them; a friend or acquaintance. Knowing who your children associate with and where they are going is a good way to keep them safe. Let them know it’s not about controlling their lives; it’s simply a matter of teaching them good personal safety habits.

Talk to your school, colleagues in Vice, and anyone involved in keeping your children safe and ask about their level of knowledge, and training in this vital area. You can’t be with your kids 24 hours a day, nor do you want to stunt their grown and development by being over protective. Kids need to be risk takers in order to learn good critical thinking skills. The key is to teach them the difference between acceptable risk and unacceptable risk. Lastly talk to your elected officials and demand that something be done to deal with individuals who are involved in this insidious practice in any way.

Kerry Sauvé