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Adults still taking advantage of at-risk kids

Thursday, February 18th, 2010 | 5:00 am

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Mike Gawliuk and Gayle from the Okanagan Boys and Girls Club have direct experience working with Kelowna's sexually-exploited youths. (Photo Joe Fries)

By Joe Fries

The underage sex trade may be nearly invisible to most people, but those who work with some of Kelowna’s sexually-exploited youths say that doesn’t mean the problem has disappeared.

At least one outward indicator came last month when police here recommended a charge of juvenile prostitution as a result of a sexual assault investigation. The charge didn’t stick, but cops clearly thought they had something.

One former youth outreach worker said the underage sex trade isn’t as public as it was several years ago, because of the gradual restoration of public order on downtown streets and advances in communications technology.

“With youth, (the sex trade) can be a little more of an underground phenomena,” said Mike Gawliuk, now the area director of central youth and family services for the Okanagan Boys and Girls Club.

He explained that through the use of things like text messaging and Craigslist, “there’s opportunities for it to take place and not be as visible in the community.” Gawliuk said he worked with one boy a few years ago who was active in the sex trade and, “it was all being set up over MSN and via cell phone and those kinds of things.”

Gawliuk’s replacement with the Boys and Girls Clubs’ Reconnect Program for high-risk youths, who goes by her first name of Gayle only, said she currently has two male clients who work on the street.

“They’re taking male and female customers,” she added.

And out of her roster of approximately 30 clients, Gayle figures five are fully engaged in the sex trade, from the street level right up to an escort agency.

Many more youths she deals with are sexually exploited – exchanging sex acts for food, shelter or drugs – but are not involved in the sex trade per se. In fact, of the 131 kids who stayed at the Richter Street emergency shelter in 2009, 40 per cent told workers they had been exploited sexually.

But the kids who are in contact with service agencies like the Boys and Girls Club don’t provide an accurate snapshot of the industry.

Jessica Donaldson, who runs H.O.P.E. Outreach, a program that offers assistance to street-level sex-trade workers in Kelowna, said via e-mail that she doesn’t see many kids out on the stroll because, “from what I’ve come to understand through ‘word on the street’ many of the younger ones are working indoors – like in trick pads.”

“When we do see them, unfortunately they are usually the ones who are least likely to ask for help, in my experience. It’s unfortunate because they are probably the ones who need it the most.”

Gawliuk thinks the reason kids may not ask for help is that they’ve developed a deep-seated mistrust of adults, who likely abused their positions of power.

Gayle said the youngest sex-trade worker she’s seen in her five years on the job was 12; Gawliuk said he met a girl on the stroll who was just 11.

“She was on one side of the street and mom was on the other side,” he said.

But Gawliuk agrees with statistics that indicate the average age at which children enter the sex trade is 14, whether they’ve been seduced by a pimp or are simply trying to feed themselves or their addictions.

The Reconnect Program, which has a focus on front-line prevention and intervention, receives some of its client referrals from police, school counsellors and social workers. One of the two Kelowna outreach workers can help kids with harm reduction techniques or, for those who want out altogether, staff can help make arrangements for staples like housing and treatment, and get the client hooked up with a social worker.

There are happy endings, Gawliuk added, and they far outnumber the bad. His message for those concerned about the underage sex trade here is threefold: Parents need to take an interest in their kids’ lives and play an active role; people need to realize anyone can make a positive difference in a kid’s life if they take the time; and finally, the public should acknowledge there are people in this city buying sex from kids.

“It can happen to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or family composition,” Gawliuk added.

“And it’s probably happening far more than any of us know.”

Adults still taking advantage of at-risk kids5.055

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