'Project Ariel' seeks to curb teen sex-trade through outreach, education
Tamara Cherry, CTV Toronto
Published Saturday, May 3, 2014 7:05PM EDT
If you saw them on the street, you may think these teens look tough.
But give them some time, take them for dinner and you may see things differently.
Two York Regional Police buses arrive at a north Toronto restaurant just before 5:30 p.m. and dozens of teenagers file out.
They wear sneakers and heels and hoodies. Some have headphones in their ears. Others have their eyes glued to smartphones. Most of these boys and girls, some as young as 12, live in group homes north of Toronto.
Excitement is in the air.
This is the last hoorah of Project Ariel, an initiative launched last year by the York Regional Police Vice Unit aimed at curbing juvenile prostitution.
The project, funded by a grant from the provincial government, was two-fold: Part enforcement, part education.
Earlier this year, investigators announced the arrests of several alleged pimps, many accused of forcing girls and young women into the sex trade.
They also announced that of the 31 girls and women they found working in hotel rooms north of Toronto, the average age of entry into the trade was 14 years old. Nearly a third of them were younger than 18 when police found them over the course of two months.
Referring to all the juvenile prostitution cases the York vice squad has seen in recent years, Det.-Const. Shane Mackenzie said every one of the girls, at some point, had lived in a group home.
And so, as part of Project Ariel, police began visiting group homes around York region. They spoke with group-home workers about pimps and signs that girls may be falling victim to the sex trade. They got to know the girls.
"This is the first time I've been introduced to the Vice team," says Terrace Youth Residential Services child and youth worker Ashley Powell. "I had no idea what the Vice team was until they came to the house and we had the presentation."
Powell and the girls in her group home were part of the recent night out.
From another group home in Richmond Hill was "C.J.," a 15-year-old girl who says she was thrust into the child-welfare system four years ago after being abused by her mother.
C.J. had moved to the Toronto area in 2009 before the abuse began, she explains after finishing her meal at the Dragon Pearl restaurant.
She calls Project Ariel "amazing" and "good for the kids," adding she has seen girls lured into the sex trade, only to come out "a whole wasted person."
"If it's not something that's happening in your front yard or on your street every day; it's not something … that you think about," Det.-Const. Mackenzie says. "The more people who are aware of the problem and looking out for it, the less likely pimps and traffickers can hide in the shadows and exploit these women."
Indeed, says Powell, after she was educated, the signs came into focus.
"Clothing they're wearing, you know, or hidden clothing underneath their clothes when they come home, make-up, odd phone numbers. You know, just always looking out the window if the pimp has the number to the house," Powell says. "You can definitely pick up when your child is involved in prostituting."
Since police began visiting the 360 Kids residential program, worker Neddy Nyce says, "I see a lot more kids coming out and coming forward and saying that they've been involved with this stuff."
"Before, I didn't really know," he says. "I knew what was going on, but I didn't really know it was in our immediate community."
It was an eye-opening experience even for the officers investigating it, Mackenzie says.
"More troubling than anything was just the numbers of juveniles we were dealing with in York Region," he says. "The hope is that through meeting them and group home visits and events like this is that we can build rapport with the kids."
After the restaurant, the group moves onto Ripley's Aquarium in downtown Toronto, where the kids marvel at sharks swimming above and pet sea creatures crawling below.
"They (the police officers) are getting really comfortable with the kids in the community, which is good because some of the outlook that we have on police sometimes is not good," says Patrick Lewis, of the 360 Kids drop-in centre. "It's good for them (the kids) to see that there's great ones around."
Funding for Project Ariel has run out, essentially bringing the program to an end.
But police say the groundwork is in place -- group home workers have been educated, relationships have been forged -- for success down the road.
Mackenzie recognizes that he and his colleagues won't prevent every teen from entering the sex trade. Indeed, he says, there are "for sure" girls who they've been working with in the group homes that are also working in the sex trade.
But those who do enter the sex trade now know there's help out there.
One day, they will meet their breaking point -- one too many beatings, one too many lies, one too many "bad dates."
And when they reach that point and they want to get out, a Vice officer will take their call.