A lack of awareness and resources is making it more difficult for police and advocates to combat young Calgarians who are being sexually exploited.
Detective Paul Rubner is a member of the counter-exploitation unit of the Calgary Police Force. He specializes in the area of sexually exploited youth.
“In the seven years I’ve been working with this population, I’ve probably dealt with between 150 and 200 youth that have been sexually exploited to varying degrees,” he says.
It’s a specialized area of law enforcement, social work and psychology according to Rubner.
“These are youth that are oftentimes exploiting themselves or unknowingly being exploited in exchange for, rarely money, but generally for things such as drugs, alcohol, companionship, places to stay — those sorts of things,” he says.
Sexual exploitation generally begins through a process of grooming. “The victim’s lacking something and the exploiter identifies that and very quickly fills that void," Rubner says.
Danielle Zipprick, director of stroll outreach and education at a Calgary-based anti-exploitation organization called The Walk, adds “Eventually the [victim] becomes more and more indebted and [they have] no way to pay [the exploiter] back except through sex.”
Adults can be groomed as well. But, according to Rubner, vulnerable youth are at greater risk. They often lack the natural or extended support systems adults have.
On top of that, he says, “The part of the brain that develops last in you – that part that allows them to link actions and consequences – is often the part of the brain that [victims] need to rely upon when they're being groomed or recruited. So it's kind of a cruel twist in biology where the one thing that will keep them safe, they physically haven't developed yet.”
Exploitation of youth in Calgary presents a number of complicated challenges for law enforcement.
One of them is awareness. Rubner says most people are unaware of the issue in the city. “I think in a civilized society like Canada, in general, most people don't want to acknowledge that sort of stuff happens,” he says.
He adds that those who may be familiar with the issue are largely informed by Hollywood. This leads to many differing and often incomplete ideas about how sexual exploitation actually presents itself in Calgary.
“It's not the boxcars full of victims or truckloads of victims [...] It has a completely different look,” Rubner says.
He adds that exploitation doesn’t have to involve elaborate movement and trafficking from other countries. In fact, most victims his unit encounters are Canadian.
To address that lack of awareness, Rubner does public presentations and education sessions for parents, teachers and peers about the issue and it’s warning signs.
Amy Stephenson is the founder of CHILL, an organization that works with individuals who have been trafficked and exploited within Calgary. Her organization runs similar sessions.
“After almost every presentation, there’s someone who would come up and say, ‘I think I’m being groomed,” she says.
Rubner says people need to be informed about the issue. “Every victim that they read or hear about is not just an abstract concept. At the end of the day it is somebody's daughter and somebody’s sister.”
Rubner notes, however, that sexual exploitation is not exclusive to females. Although it is less common, males may be exploited as well.
“We've got very few things in life that we can call our own, but our body is certainly one of those things that we should be able to. And when a person's sexual safety has been denied them, I think that's one of the most egregious crimes that can take place.”
There are also a number of complex psychological challenges that Rubner’s unit must address once they have identified victims.
He says, “The majority [of victims] find the prospect of the judicial system in Canada, where the accused have the right to face their accusers, to be very daunting.”
The unit is honest with victims about the challenges of testifying and must reassure them that the process works despite these challenges.
“To stand up in open court and tell in great detail some very intimate details as to what happened to them when the people that were responsible for what happened to them and often times did these things to them are sitting just feet away from them looking at them in the eye — it's a very daunting prospect,” Rubner acknowledges.
He says going to court is a process of ripping off scabs and reopening wounds.
If this was not challenge enough, many victims are often reluctant to reveal their exploiters in the first place. “There is a phrase among them that snitches get stitches,” he says.
Some victims who have been entrenched in the lifestyle, even begin to empathize with their exploiter.
To cap it all off, the counter-exploitation unit must face these challenges with limited resources.
Rubner says there are many things they could use in a perfect world: “We’d like more facilities to deal with victims, more counselors and therapists in those facilities, more awareness in the public so we can help identify victims, more awareness in the public to not stigmatize victims.”
But it isn’t a perfect world. The need for his job proves that, and he realizes that lack of resources is a common problem.
“Any person in any job could really do with more money because it’s all about resourcing. I mean everybody can do really good jobs if they’ve got the resources to do them with. Whether it’s policing or architecture or whatever the case may be.”
According to Rubner though, that’s not an excuse not to get the job done.
“So do we say ‘I wish we had more of a, b and c?’ Absolutely. But again, we don’t. So from a practical perspective, we just have to move on,” he says.
- By Blaise Kemna