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To Curb Vancouver's Big Trade In Child Sex, Police Nab 'Johns'

Arrest of customers may encourage girls to testify in court

After trying nearly everything to curb the rising number of children in Vancouver's notorious sex trade, political leaders and police say the only thing left is to throw the book at customers.

Since January, Vancouver police have been hauling in both "johns," or customers of prostitutes, and pimps, rather than the children they exploit.

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"It doesn't make any sense to let the [customers] go scot-free," Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen says in a telephone interview. "You have this incredible demand by middle-aged men for girls as young as 11. To not take a stand against the customers is crazy."

Vancouver's reputation

Vancouver has gained a reputation - along with several cities in North America - as a city where it is easy to find a child for sex. In a city of 1.6 million people, hundreds of children under 17 years are used in the trade, child advocates say.

Vancouver police decided last fall to accept the recommendations of a provincial antiprostitution task force that they start arresting customers and pimps. Sex-trade children, if picked up, should be taken to agency and community-aid programs, the task force recommended.

While Vancouver's overall focus of arresting the johns is geared toward slowing prostitution, the focus is on squelching the growth of child prostitution, the mayor and local activists say.

A key problem in curbing juvenile prostitution, say activists, is that police are distrusted by young prostitutes because that group has been the main target of arrests in the sex trade. Activists say that police must gain youths' trust.

Canadian law currently puts the onus for convicting procurers (pimps) and customers (johns) on evidence and testimony supplied by the women and children. Because of the fear and distrust that juveniles have of the police, persuading them to testify in court against pimps and customers has been very hard, activists say.

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"It's been difficult for children and women to go to the police when they've been the ones being charged," says John Turvey, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, which works with troubled youths. "But with this kind of different spin, if they do prosecute the predators, there could be some real payoff if attitudes do shift."

Building trust between youth sex-trade workers and police could slowly begin to reduce what has been a fast-growing demand in the Vancouver area for sex with youths under age 18. Last year, for instance, Mr. Turvey's group produced a report entitled "Vancouver: Predator and Pedophile Paradise" that criticized the city for not doing enough to protect children on the street.

The report stated that police have long disregarded the men who purchase sex from juveniles. Children in prostitution were charged 59 times more often for selling sex than the men who exploit them are charged for purchasing it, the report found.

In six years, only six men were charged in Vancouver for buying sex from a child, but 354 juveniles were charged for selling it. Of the six men who were charged, only two were convicted, the report said. By contrast, a Vancouver police spokesman said that in the last two weeks of February, 10 customers had been arrested and charged with soliciting for prostitution.

Kimberly Daum, the researcher who wrote the report, says she thinks there is a possibility of some gains through the new approach, but emphasizes that laws still need to be changed to allow evidence other than testimony by youths if the child-sex-trade is to be slowed.

The problem has always been that undercover police officers are too old to pass themselves off as juvenile prostitutes - making it safer for both pimps and johns if they seek out a child than an adult for sex. That problem remains, despite the change in emphasis, Ms. Daum says.

"Kids' reluctance to testify has always been the issue," she says. "Nothing about this new program will change that. These kids have a real fear of not just the pimps but their customers."

To make Vancouver's new approach effective, Daum says the federal government must write an exemption into Canada's Privacy Act to provide for audio and video surveillance of soliciting for prostitution in certain special circumstances - that circumstance being where men are trying to pick up juveniles with the intent of sexually exploiting them.

Canada-wide interest

Vancouver's approach has been picked up on at the federal level by Member of Parliament Randy White, who says that police nationwide should start arresting customers.

"It's the only intelligent thing to do," says Mayor Owen. "Simply arresting the prostitutes hasn't worked in Toronto, Montreal, or Ottawa either. You have to stop the demand."

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