Stopping the sexual exploitation of children and youth in Chilliwack is not easy, but there are ways.
Unfortunately the problem, sometimes hard to recognize, is already here, says a multi-agency Chilliwack team united around prevention.
It could be a youth coerced into trading sexual favours for a place to sleep, nice clothes, or drugs and alcohol. Or perhaps a youth “sexting” nude photos to older men.
“While sexual exploitation in our community may be invisible to most, we do know it is happening,” said Karen Steegstra, Child and Youth Community Coordinator.
It’s the teen who pimps out her peers, or the one who meets a 40-year-old in local park who’d pretended to be in high school but turned out to be a cyber stalker.
Stop the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth Awareness Week is being recognized in Chilliwack and across B.C. this week — with fuchsia ribbons and events from March 9-15.
They held workshops in Chilliwack last year and they also held a public rally downtown.
But the concept is still a bit of a tough sell.
“One of the most compelling issues is that youth themselves do not recognize they are being exploited and that it is illegal,” said Brenda Listoen, chair of the Awareness Week committee, and a Youth Reconnect worker for Chilliwack Community Services.
She is someone who works with at-risk teens, and says the need is very great for more education.
“We need to increase awareness about exploitation among our youth and in our community in general, helping them see exploitation for what it is, who is at risk and what we can as a community do about it,” said Listoen.
For 2015, they are touring a multi-media presentation to middle and secondary school assemblies, with a public event on April 16 at the Cottonwood 4 Theatre to screen a film called Trust, followed by a panel discussion with Children of the Street Society reps.
The team relies on “anecdotal” evidence of inappropriate or exploitative relationships, from school counsellors, outreach workers and others who work with homeless or at-risk teens.
“By being alert to the signs of exploitation and attentive to the potential dangers we can better ensure that our young people enjoy healthy formative years,” added Steegstra.
The definition of sexual exploitation is: “Any type of sexual activity with children and youth in exchange for money, drugs, food, shelter and any other considerations.”
“Creating an awareness week is about educating and protecting our youth and connecting them to supports and services if needed,” said Steegstra.
The perps will use any trick in the book: power, coercion, intimidation, seduction, and grooming to get their victims to do their bidding, and to keep silent.
Education will also help parents, caregivers and the whole community to recognize the problem when they see it and to possibly intervene.
There are serious barriers to leaving the sex trade – or even avoiding it all together — if you’re vulnerable, poor and in trouble at home. The youth may find themselves feeling obligated and emotionally attached.
“One of the barriers is a lack of low-income, low-barrier housing,” Listoen said.
She was quick to praise the impact of both the new youth emergency shelter at Cyrus Centre on Wellington Avenue, and the Village facility on School Street, but they still need more to fill the need that exists.
“We could easily use twice the number of units available,” she said.
In Chilliwack they’ve been working on prevention for three years under the umbrella SEA-CAT (Sexual Exploitation Awareness Community Action Team), a partnership between Chilliwack Community Services, Chilliwack Child and Youth Committee, Ministry of Child and Family Development, School District #33, RCMP, Chilliwack Society for Community Living, Pacific Community Resources Society.
This year for Awareness Week, it’s the return of TCO² in April (Taking Care of Ourselves, Taking Care of Others). It’s a multi-media presentation from Children of the Street Society, with funding from MCFD, that will be making the rounds in local schools during the first week of April. Youth will learn what exploitation looks like and some tips on staying cyber safe.
Youth against Violence line is 1-800-680-4264 or to report a sexually explicit image of youth go to www.cybertip.ca.