Tell us a little bit about your organization:
For 80 years, Boys & Girls Clubs of Calgary (BGCC) has been committed to supporting young people to discover, develop and achieve their full potential. We provide safe places, programs and experiences for children and youth which tackle complex issues Including youth homelessness, child sexual exploitation, poverty, food insecurity, youth unemployment, discrimination and intergenerational trauma.
Best known for our community clubs which operate out-of-school programs for children around the city, we also offer a diverse range of programs such as the Avenue 15 Youth Homeless Shelter, group homes, preschools and settlement supports for newcomer youth. Across our programs we help children and youth build a positive sense of self through supportive relationships with staff and engaging activities that promote wellbeing, social and emotional competencies, a sense of belonging and skills for life.
How long have you been operating for?
Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary has been in operation for 80 years. In recent decades we have added programs that specifically target vulnerable youth who are at risk of or involved in sexual exploitation.
Our Hera program is in partnership with the Calgary Board of Education and provides a specialized classroom with intensive wrap-around supports for girls at risk of or involved in sexual exploitation. The program embraces a therapeutic, trauma-informed, and relationship-focused approach that includes in-home supports for parents as well as targeted psycho-education and mentoring about exploitation.
Located outside the city, Grimmon House is a voluntary, residential recovery program for girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who are at risk of or involved in sexual exploitation. The program provides therapy, addictions counseling, an onsite school classroom, and psycho-education around sexual exploitation.
Eleanor’s House is a residential home in the city of Calgary that provides a trauma-informed home environment with supports for male and female youth aged 13-17 who have been affected by exploitation and have been referred by Calgary Region Child and Family Services.
The Unity Project works with young adults who are street entrenched, experiencing homelessness and at risk of or involved in sexual exploitation. Unity works to reconnect youth to safe housing and positive natural supports, meet their basic needs and develop skills for self-sufficiency so that they can exit exploitation.
What kinds of conversations should parents have with their kids about protecting them from human trafficking and sexual exploitation?
Parents and caregivers can have conversations with young people about grooming and predatory behaviours which young people may experience both in person and online. Predators target places where youth typically hang out such as at the mall, school yards, and bus stops.
Young people – especially those with particular risk factors and vulnerabilities — need to hear that the older “friend” who may offer cigarettes, offer to take the youth places, or give them expensive gifts, could eventually seek something in return.
Further, many young people who experience sexual exploitation may not understand what a healthy relationship looks like and may lack information about consent. These conversations should be starting earlier than some may think as, increasingly, we are observing children beginning to be exploited as early as 11 years old.
What are some of the warning signs of human trafficking/sexual exploitation that you see at your agency?
Although ALL children can be at risk of exploitation, some young people are at higher risk due to certain individual, societal, and environmental factors. The presence of these factors does not necessarily mean a child is being exploited but indicates that the child is vulnerable to being targeted, recruited, groomed, and exploited. A few of these factors include:
• Unstable home environment – couch surfing, accessing shelters or are homeless
• Learning disabilities, developmental delays or mental health problems
• History of living in residential care such as group homes or foster care
• Family conflict and breakdown
• Family history of domestic abuse, mental health issues, substance abuse
Risk indicators are specific behaviours that have been linked to exploitation. Some indicators are directly linked to exploitation such as sexualized behaviour and dating someone much older. Other indicators are symptoms of being involved in an exploited lifestyle such as lack of sleep, staying out late and having increased anxiety. Still others are symptoms of physical and mental trauma such as self-harming and using drugs and alcohol to cope. Examples of these behaviours below have been linked to children who have been exploited and are good indicators that a child is being groomed or exploited.
• Staying out late with whereabouts being unknown or unclear
• Skipping school and a decrease in academic performance
• Has a much older boyfriend or girlfriend 5+ years
• Increased use of drugs and alcohol
• Has more than one cell phone without a plausible explanation and has high levels of anxiety if not reachable by cell phone
• Change in appearance: hygiene, weight loss/gain, expensive new clothes, oversexualized dressing, unexplained physical injuries, new tattoo
• Behaviour is increasingly hostile, disruptive or physically aggressive
• Fatigued, nightmares, trouble sleeping
Some youth may not feel they are being exploited and may insist they have chosen to exchange sexual acts for gifts or money. Child sexual exploitation is never a choice or consensual or considered prostitution; it is a form of sexual abuse.
What do you think is the greatest myth when it comes to human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Canada?
Some people may carry inaccurate and damaging beliefs that the sexual exploitation of children is something which happens in poverty-affected families and to young people who were behaving badly and brought it on themselves. In reality, all children may be at risk of sexual exploitation.
Young people who are exploited for sex are not homogenous; all classes, races, genders, and sexualities are represented. Some children and youth are at a higher risk due to certain societal, community, relationship and individual factors. Individual level factors include being homeless, having involvement with child protective services or justice systems, being LGBTQ2S+, and having adverse experiences in childhood.
Societal risk factors include the glorification of pimp culture, objectification of women and girls, gender bias, and widespread use of Internet and social media. Environmental risk factors that can contribute to higher rates of child sexual exploitation include urban areas with international airports and large transient male populations.
What else would you like people to know?
The sexual exploitation of children and youth creates serious short and long-term problems, not just for the children being exploited but also for affected families, communities, and society. Despite the growing number of programs worldwide that are designed to identify and respond to the unique needs of those who have been exploited, parents often feel traumatized themselves from what has happened to their child and many feel guilt for not having protected their child from sexual exploitation. The strain and impact on parents cannot be underestimated and, in some cases, can provoke mental health problems, addiction issues and divorce in families who are unable to cope.
Unfortunately, Alberta has many of the environmental risk factors that can contribute to the sexual exploitation of young people including a large transient male population with expendable cash from working in the oilfields, high rates of addiction, two busy international airports, and a history of the sex trade in two of its major cities. Prevention and intervention programs for children at risk of sexual exploitation are critical to the health and wellbeing of Alberta’s children.