This blog series shares some of the important work being done by local agencies to help us advance our mission. Their front line role sheds a light on the realities of the sexual exploitation of youth in our communities.
Tell us a little bit about your role and your organization:
My name is Bryan Hume and I am a Program Manager for Safe Directions at Hull Services, which includes a Safe House under the Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act (PSECA).
I’ve been involved in working with sexually exploited youth since 2004, when the PCHIP (Protection of Children Involved in Prostitution), later changed to the PSECA program, began to be managed by Hull Services. PSECA is a provincial program and can be accessed for any Alberta youth who is being sexually exploited or who is at risk of sexual exploitation.
Hull Services is a large charitable agency that has provided multiple services in a variety of locations to children, youth and families in Calgary and the surrounding area for more than fifty years.
How long have you been working there?
I’ve been at Hull Services for 21 years and have had the privilege of working with youth, their families and very caring and committed teams of professionals offering support and guidance to this vulnerable population.
What are some of the warning signs of human trafficking/sexual exploitation that you see at Hull Services?
Youth entering our program can be females or males who are impacted by various individual, environmental, and social factors that place them at risk for exploitation. Some of the young people we see have experienced significant abuse and trauma, some have significant mental health challenges and/or learning disabilities, and most have run away from caregivers. Some youth have increased vulnerability and struggle with societal acceptance related to their identification with the LGBTQ2S+ community.
Substance misuse is common for these youth and some are impacted by social factors like increased exposure to technology and societal messages that promote wearing expensive brand name clothing.
”In many ways, consumerism is used to support a youth’s identity development and often results in groomers and recruiters using seduction, coercion, gifts and a false sense of belonging to lure youth into sexual exploitation.“
Youth access to social media and technology is often a double-edged sword: it can be a positive way to communicate with others, but it can also increase vulnerability and risk related to sexual exploitation at a stage of development when identity and belonging needs drive behaviour.
We see the sexual exploitation of some youth as a by-product of a continuum of sexual abuse, made up of multiple factors that can lead a child closer to sexual exploitation. It can begin with sexual abuse by a trusted individual and a violation of boundaries. We have seen this contribute to a child’s feelings of guilt and shame, and a desire to keep the abuse secret to protect the offender. Many of these youth choose to run away to escape these difficult feelings.
Without a place to call home, they can find themselves becoming dependent on exploitative adults who wield an unequal power dynamic and offer to meet the young person’s needs for shelter, money, food, clothing, attention, and love. Having these needs met is often connected with an expectation that the young person exchange some kind of sexual favour in return.
Youth with an abuse and trauma history often have low self-esteem and are vulnerable to these exploitative relationships. Many of the youth we work with talk about how they were groomed and manipulated in a slow and calculated way, leading them further down the path of being sexually exploited without realizing what was happening. Some youth feel that they can only be viewed as a sexual object.
We see a high percentage of youth who are involved in substance use, which ranges from marijuana and alcohol use to harder substances such as methamphetamines and opioids. Drug use is often the young person’s attempt to escape past and current traumatic events, but it can also lead to further exploitation to obtain drugs and meet their addiction needs.
What do you think is the greatest myth when it comes to human trafficking and sexual exploitation?
Some of the myths that are most concerning relate to the false belief that children/youth “choose” to engage in sexual exploitation and that they have the ability to “make lots of money”.
”A young person doesn’t wake up one day and decide to exchange sex for some commodity. “
When we consider what sexual favours are being exchanged for (a place to stay, drugs, affection and belonging, a pack of cigarettes, etc.), it becomes clear that the young people are not the ones in control and are not benefitting financially. They are, however, the ones who have likely experienced trauma and who have traveled along a painful path at the hands of exploitative same-aged peers and adults, resulting in victimization.
What are some ways we can protect our children and youth?
Our program focuses on trying to meet the needs of these youth; we recognize that the young person is the one who needs to be in control of treatment timelines.
”We recognize that while they are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, they can be supported to acknowledge and deal with the victimization and see themselves as survivors who can also be leaders. “
Protection is a large, multifaceted and individualized challenge. It is about creatively drawing attention to the issue in our community. It starts with education and honest parent/child conversations at home, accurate messaging in schools, appropriate screening within the medical system, accurate messaging through social media platforms, etc.
Drawing attention to the issue in schools, offering information to parents about the ways children and youth are lured into sexual exploitations, sharing with parents how to have protective conversations with their children, teaching the risks and safe use of social media, and having accessible services to meet the needs for vulnerable families, children and youth are a few of the ways that we can protect children and youth from exploitative individuals.
Above all, it is about addressing and reducing the stigma and taboo. This does happen in our community. Opening up conversation can help us look to the day where we can say, “Not in My City.”