As the courts get set to wrangle this spring over how to change Canada’s prostitution laws, the public debate is expected to heat up, but often overlooked are the thousands of children exploited in the sex trade. Any changes to the system need to take into account these vulnerable young victims. Investigative reporter Julian Sher has done an in-depth exploration of child prostitution south of the border for his new book, Somebody’s Daughter. From his book, here are five innovative approaches that Canadian legislators and law-enforcement officers could learn from.
A SAFE HARBOUR
It’s a glaring contradiction: Young girls are arrested on prostitution-related charges even though by law they are too young to consent to having sex in the first place.
Rachel Lloyd, who founded a New York shelter and rehabilitation program called GEMS: Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, was determined to change that. “We’re talking about children who are bought and sold by adults to adults,” she said. “We shouldn’t be criminalizing young people for something that was done to them.”
She and young survivors lobbied for a change to the laws for four years until 2008, when New York State adopted its Safe Harbor Act. It mandates that prostituted minors get protection, not prison – including health and social services. Since then, California, Connecticut, Washington and Illinois have enacted similar laws.
No such laws exist as yet in Canada, although unofficially most provinces try to redirect minors to social services instead of the prison system. But that help is far from guaranteed.
SPOTTING HIGH-RISK VICTIMS
When Dallas Police Sergeant Byron Fassett started investigating prostituted children, he found that the vast majority were repeat runaways – fleeing to the streets to escape whatever was worse at home. “We didn’t have a prostitution problem, we had a runaway problem,” he said. “And we were ignoring both.”
He set up a small, specially trained high-risk victims and trafficking unit, but more important, he set out to change the disdainful attitude most cops had about prostituted children, training beat cops to be on the lookout for at-risk children.
It took more than a decade, but today, three-quarters of the girls rescued are identified by regular patrol officers, and prosecutors in Dallas are winning cases against 90 per cent of the pimps.
“We have built up an army one person at a time,” Sgt. Fassett said.
His model has inspired other police departments across the United States and in Canada. In 2008, Sgt. Fassett was invited to share his experiences with police in Winnipeg. Since then, the police and the Manitoba government’s Child Protection Branch developed a “high-risk victims” list to find children at risk.
A SPECIAL COURT
What happens in Las Vegas may stay there, but it isn’t always pretty. The Yellow Pages in casino hotel rooms have 89 pages of “escort services” that advertise “barely legal” teens and “naughty school girls.”
America’s Sin City is a mecca of child prostitution. In the past decade, a special police squad has rescued more than 1,500 minors forced into prostitution: 60 per cent come from outside the city, including Canada.
Family and Youth Court Judge William Voy was frustrated with how these children were being caught in the system. “These kids don’t really belong in the juvenile justice system,” he said. “They’re victims and they deserve to be treated as such.”
So, in 2005, he created a special “prostituted youth” court. Since then, more than 400 girls and a handful of boys have appeared before Judge Voy in the Wednesday-morning hearings, when he tries to help them. He is part stern father, part psychologist, part cop.
Often for the first time in these children’s lives, somebody was prepared to listen to their stories. Judge Voy’s youth court boasts an impressively low recidivism rate: Only 12 per cent of them have been charged again with prostitution-related offences.
GOING AFTER THE JOHNS
In the United States, tough federal human-trafficking statutes had been on the books since 2000, but not a single man was being charged under the law for buying sex from a minor or adult. “These guys were getting a pass,” said Cynthia Cordes, a federal prosecutor in Kansas City, Mo.
“Johns” are notoriously difficult to charge and convict because prostituted women and their pimps are unable or unwilling to identify the anonymous clients. So in 2009, Ms. Cordes set up a sting called Operation Guardian Angel, and advertised “young fun” and “little girls” on sex websites and in magazines. Within minutes, men started responding. Seven were eventually convicted – the first convictions ever under U.S. federal law – with sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.
Human-trafficking offences were written into Canada’s Criminal Code in 2005, but they have never been used against a man buying sex. Fewer than 60 men are convicted every year of the lesser offence of “procuring” an adult prostitute – with little or no jail time – according to Statistics Canada. The number of men charged with trying to obtain sex from a minor fell to 16 in 2009 from 35 in 2005.
TARGETING PIMPS ‘LIKE THE MAFIA’
“The sex trade is the new drug trade,” FBI special agent Dan Garrabrant said.
He works on one of 39 task forces the Federal Bureau of Investigation has set up across the U.S. as part of its Innocence Lost initiative. Using racketeering laws, wiretaps, surveillance and financial investigations, they go after pimping enterprises “like we were attacking the Mafia,” as Mr. Garrabrant put it.
He worked for two years to put one away one New Jersey pimp for more than 20 years for trafficking in minors. Since 2003, the FBI has convicted more than 600 pimps and their associates – and rescued more than 1,200 children.
“Child prostitution is the most overlooked form of child abuse,” Mr. Garrabrant said. “Our job is to make the invisible visible.”
In Canada, there have been only five convictions to date of pimps under federal trafficking laws; the longest sentence was three years. Last June, Parliament passed Bill C-268, which imposes a minimum five-year sentence for anyone convicted of trafficking in a minor.
Adapted by Julian Sher from his new book Somebody’s Daughter: The Hidden Story of America’s Prostituted Children and the Battle to Save Them, with permission from Chicago Review Press.