A City Rebuffs Child Prostitution
Calgary's 'in-your-face' tactics awaken citizens to confront problem
As Olympic glory faded from Calgary after the 1988 Winter Games, residents began to notice something unpleasant was taking its place.
It got so bad that a government official once jokingly said Calgary was Canada's "sex capital." But it was no laughing matter to parents and police. By 1990 they noticed that adolescents and children were popping up on street corners across the city looking for customers. Child prostitution had arrived in the former oil boomtown.
"Look, Calgary is not the sex capital of North America," says Ross MacInnes, a retired Calgary police officer. "The difference between it and other cities is that we are bound and determined to do something about this. Every city has this problem but most deny its existence."
Mr. MacInnes is executive director of Street Teams, a citywide program designed to help children escape prostitution and to disrupt the marketing of them.
Child prostitution peaked in Calgary in about 1993, he says, when city residents rose up to fight it. Police arrested hundreds of pimps between 1992 and 1994. With public support behind them, all three levels of government - federal, provincial, and city - got into the fray last year. But progress came slowly and in stages.
First, there was an awareness campaign, orchestrated by MacInnes and the police so that there was hardly an individual in Calgary who didn't know of the problem. Conferences and seminars were held for social workers, clergy, guidance counselors, and the public. Police took news reporters out on streets, introducing them to kids, pimps, and customers. "It was all very much in your face," MacInnes says. "We were saying straight out - this is what's going on in this town after dark."
The second phase involved changing attitudes - especially among lawyers, police, judges, and social workers. Helping the legal system understand the children's backgrounds was the key, MacInnes says.
"We had to shift away from the idea that these were sexually promiscuous teens to an understanding that they were victims of [abusive] families and the [prostitution] system," he says.
Finally, Calgary's campaign hit home with the message that the children involved were not simply Asian, Indian, or white children - they were Calgary's children; also that it wasn't the government's job - it is "our job," the community's job.
In fall 1994, Calgary entered its action phase with a well-organized, collaborative effort by 14 agencies - pulling 55 children off the streets and out of prostitution - children who have not gone back. Families were "created" for them or the kids went back to their families if that was a safe option for them. A growing support network also helped families learn different ways of handling kids. Since the action phase began, Calgary has seen a dramatic lessening of child prostitution - about 25 percent overall.
"Calgary has done an incredible job," says Frank Barnaba, an anti-youth-prostitution activist in New York who has traveled across North America lecturing on the subject. "Unlike every other city I know of in North America, they have chosen to deal with the problem head on."
Street Teams today has a strong volunteer base of over 100 people, a full-time staff of 13, and a residential treatment center that includes programs to help kids readjust to normal society. It is funded 90 percent by corporations and citizens. The rest comes from the government.
When a girl has been sexually assaulted hundreds of times, "there's a need to help her learn how to go about having a normal date with a 14-year-old boy," MacInnes says. "How do you go out bowling or go to the zoo? What does $10 allowance mean to a child who has had $500 flow through her fingers in one night?
"We have seen a dramatic lessening of child prostitution in this community. It isn't all gone yet. Some has gone underground. But we're working on it. This is a community solution."