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B.C. police can’t keep up with boom in online child sexual exploitation | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

Online child exploitation is increasing across Canada and police say they don’t have the resources to investigate the growing number of reported cases as predators target children on social media.


Sgt. Christian Lowe of the Vancouver Police Department said his internet child exploitation unit receives more complaints about images of child sexual abuse than sexual assault complaints.

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According to Statistics Canada, B.C. accounted for 54 per cent of the country’s 7,141 reported incidents of making and distributing such images in 2021. In 2022, B.C. RCMP dealt with 9,600 cases. In the first three months of this year alone, there were 5,790 cases.

Statistics Canada says 7,743 children in Canada were confirmed to be victims of online sexual violation between 2014 and 2020.

The perpetrators are hard to find — and even more difficult to prosecute.

“When it comes to child pornography, these kids don’t even know they’re being victimized. It’s just part of their life,” said Lowe. “These children are not only being sexually assaulted but they are being recorded and put on the internet for the rest of their lives.”

To access hundreds, if not thousands, of these images, a predator only needs common social media apps and websites, said Noel Sinclair, a Yukon Crown prosecutor for 14 years.

“It is one of the most disturbing aspects of my job as a criminal prosecutor, work in homicide and high-risk offenders, violent offenders, sexual assault, all of those things … and it’s not unusual for collections to include images and video recordings at those extreme levels of depravity,” he said.

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Despite the growing number of incidents, very few proceed to court, said Janine Benedet, a University of B.C. law professor specializing in this area.

In 2020, only 63 of 4,201 reported cases, or 1.4 per cent, resulted in charges, she said. “So, nothing.”

Investigations into images of child sexual abuse are resource-intensive, and a giant misconception surrounds the sinister nature of these pictures and videos and how they are created, Benedet said: “People think it is just possessing pictures, not actual child sexual abuse, but this is actual child sexual abuse.”

The biggest problem facing Crown prosecutors is identifying who is behind the screen, said Kamloops-area MP Frank Caputo, who is the federal Conservative’s justice critic. “Our experts are overburdened. Without an expert report, it can be difficult to prove.”

Why is B.C. seemingly so overrepresented as a producer of child sex abuse material?

Caputo said B.C.’s high case numbers perhaps could be attributed to how such crimes are reported.

“Some regions might have a higher number of detections or perhaps a higher number of investigations per capita,” he said. “I’d be utterly shocked if B.C. (actually) had higher numbers. This is a pervasive problem that spans socio-economic divisions.”

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Cpl. Sharen Leung, who works in the B.C. RCMP internet child exploitation unit, agrees B.C. may be overrepresented partly due to how different police units report and record crimes.

Cpl. Sharen Leung of the B.C. RCMP internet child exploitation unit (left) with Staff Sgt. Lyndsay O’Ruairc. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

‘We have to employ a triage process’ 

Offenders are increasingly active but difficult to find and prosecute due to the internet’s borderless nature, and policing resources cannot keep up with the growth.

Digital fingerprints like IP addresses do not stick around forever, and by the time an arrest warrant can be issued, the person might have already have moved on, said Caputo.

B.C. RCMP’s internet child exploitation unit has 23 people, including Leung, working on cases 365 days a year and works in co-operation with VPD and other municipal police forces in B.C.

Leung said she once thought, as did many, that images of child sexual abuse were limited to “creepy old men” on computers. But “the offenders I’ve dealt with for the last seven years have been anyone from 19 to 90.”

Leung says the problem exists anywhere technology does.

“There’s just so much more access to the internet and smartphones and devices. That’s our world right now. So, the ability to access, possess and make available and share all that child pornography is at the palm of our hands.”

While Leung says her unit is under-resourced and underfunded, she is proud of its work and says saving kids is what matters.

“There are so many files, but there’s only so many of us in the unit to tackle one or a couple of files at a time,” she said. “I wish there were more people to know what it’s like. I think the biggest frustration is that we don’t have the resources, and we want to do more.”

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The VPD internet child exploitation unit faces the same challenges, said Lowe: “My authorized strength is five detectives and one sergeant, and I don’t have that many people right now.”

Leung’s RCMP unit includes investigators who go undercover and covertly join groups making and distributing material.

Her unit worked its way through three million to five million files from the internet over three months this year, which they categorize into three groups. The first is “child sex abuse material” as recently defined by the Criminal Code of Canada, the second is considered “unclear” and the last group is “harmless.”

The unit gets international assistance from agencies such as U.S. Homeland Security and sometimes the FBI, she said, adding that the borderless nature and vast array of people involved makes it hard to identify victims and offenders.

The rapid internet growth over the last 10 years meant soaring number of child sexual exploitation cases, said Bruce Daley, a Toronto defence lawyer with more than 40 years of experience practising law — including defending those charged with such offences.

The internet “did what the machine-gun, land tank, or nuclear weapons did to warfare. It just geometrically exploded the danger,” he said. “The public does not get how f — king dangerous it is. It’s mind-blowing to me, and I’ve been at this for 44 years.”

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Girls aged 12 to 17 are significantly overrepresented as targets of non-consensual distribution of intimate images, and most of the offences against children are cases of luring, where an adult uses computers or technology to arrange an in-person sexual encounter with a child.

The problem is growing all over the country.

In Alberta, which has a team of 50 agents, analysts, and support staff, there is enormous growth, says Michael Tucker, director of communications for Alberta’s internet child exploitation unit.

“The volume of referrals that are coming in is still exponential. We can’t get to it all,” he said. “So, we have to employ a triage process, which is very tough.”

Ten years ago, Tucker mostly dealt with people sending videotapes by mail. “When I started, we had a case of a guy in Toronto mailing out child pornography DVDs. You never hear of that anymore.”

“The internet entirely enabled it.”

Lowe said he would love B.C. to adopt Alberta’s law enforcement approach. There, RCMP and municipal police combine forces to tackle online images of child sexual abuse, and their investigators are “the cream of the crop.”

A significant development that helped decrease the number of cases in Ontario was mandated education in classrooms about human trafficking and sexual exploitation, said Tiana Sharfi, CEO of the Exploitation Education Institute, which works for Ontario’s Education Ministry to educate thousands of students about online safety, consent, healthy relationships, sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

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B.C. Public Safety Minister General Mike Farnworth said in an email that B.C. has no such mandatory training on preventing sexual abuse.

‘Unspeakably horrific’

The highly disturbing nature of child pornography keeps the problem hidden because it’s difficult for news media to cover cases that don’t result in convictions, said Sinclair.

“I don’t believe that the public has a very well-informed or clear idea about the very extreme nature of this pornography,” he said. “Some of these images and these recordings are unspeakably horrific. But, unfortunately, they’re not the kinds of things the media can report upon and show to the public because possessing them is illegal.

“This is not, you know, we’re not talking about images of kids in sailor suits, posing. This stuff is unimaginably graphic, horrific and morally reprehensible.”

Conservative MP for Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo Frank Caputo. Photo by Adrian Wyld /The Canadian Press

A landmark case in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in 2005 outlined levels of the various sexual acts in these materials, Sinclair said.

Level 1 is images depicting erotic posing with no sexual activity. Level 2 is sexual activity between children or solo masturbation by a child. Level 3 is non-penetrative sexual activity between adults and children. Level 4 is penetrative sexual activity between children and adults. The most egregious, Level 5, is images of child sexual abuse depicting sadism, he said.

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“It is not uncommon for child pornography prosecutors to be confronted with cases where the materials include very significant content at Levels 4 and 5,” Sinclair said.

Caputo believes minimum sentencing guidelines are not strict enough. This, in turn, can affect how a court case will play out. He gave the example of a woman charged with sexually exploiting her own children: She entered an early guilty plea and received house arrest.

The evolving nature of the law allows for more effective investigations but does not go far enough to protect children from being sexually exploited online, said Sinclair.

“In Canada, there are important fundamental freedoms in terms of privacy, and those rights, I think, need to be jealously protected. It’s a conflict between privacy protection and protecting children,” he said.

Professor Janine Benedet says police investigations of images of child sexual abuse are incredibly difficult. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Social media increasingly used

Limiting young people’s access to social media, where most of offences start, would help solve the problem, said Benedet.

“It requires getting serious in regulating these various kinds of online platforms and putting obligations on them to prevent the distribution and screening of this material,” said Benedet. Images can even be accessed on common social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook — not just on the dark web.

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“Sometimes, we get ourselves very tied up in knots about privacy on the internet, about people’s right to sexually explicit material. And this is about none of that. This is about the sexual abuse of children and those who want to record and profit from it.”

Benedet said trying to track criminal profits is difficult, as much of the material exists on the dark web, and payments are often made using cryptocurrencies.

It is not an expensive product if you want to purchase a photo, with some images selling for as little as $50.

“It’s an incredibly lucrative industry. And, frankly, the value of children’s lives, bodily security, and dignity to society is ‘very small.’ And so, that’s what makes it such a devastating industry.”

Benedet says youth in prostitution are particular victims and if a pimp controls them, photos and videos can be made and distributed by social media apps like Snapchat and on the dark web.

Human trafficking and child sexual exploitation cross over into leading escort service websites, too, added Sharfi: “We looked at the presence of human trafficking on an escort website and found that between 40 to 60 per cent of those ads were child human-trafficking victims.”

Ten years ago, underage prostitutes were moved by handlers, pimps or abusers onto social media platforms like Facebook and away from the street, she said.

“We’re now seeing gangs and human traffickers utilize Snapchat and Instagram specifically to connect with these kids. We’ve eliminated this big step that leads to trafficking, and grooming, which is now being done by social media and society.”

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Sharfi said examples of this can be seen on websites such as OnlyFans, which have relabelled images of child sexual abuse as “adult content creation,” thereby tending to normalize the behaviour.

“Kids have heard about these platforms and then want to start selling,” she said. “They’re doing pictures. … It usually does not take long for someone to come and offer them more money.”

One welcome change has been redefining the law, said Camila Jimenez, program manager of Children of the Street.

The Canadian Criminal Code’s term “child pornography” became “child sexual abuse material” in March when Bill C-291 passed. That will help redefine how the public sees sex recordings, she said.

Jimenez hopes changing the name, like changing the age of consent, will drive more public awareness and better define how serious the problem is.

The term “pornography” is generally used to describe content that is created with adult actors who are paid for what they’re doing, said Monique St Germain, general counsel for The Canadian Centre for Child Protection. The Centre, a national charity, works to reduce child victimization and promote safety of all children.

Another group, Children of the Street, was set up in 1995 by Diane Sowden after a group of men exploited her 13-year-old daughter Katie by first grooming and luring her, then getting her hooked on drugs, then trafficking her, and, finally, keeping her on the streets of Vancouver.

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Sowden, a recipient of the Order of Canada recipient for her work, recounted the story of another B.C. teenager, Ashley, recruited online by a group of men who promised her fame, fortune and a modelling career.

“She was very naive. And I can’t remember the exact number, but within the first night, she had sex with multiple men. That’s how quickly it happened,” she said.

Indigenous children are often overrepresented in online sexual exploitation, Sharfi said, but how it occurs is very different.

She says that in a city environment, predators might lure a kid by offering a new mobile phone, a fancy meal, or designer clothes. But, for Indigenous kids, it could be an offer as simple as help relocating.

“If they’re lacking safety within their community, or belonging within their community, or anything of that nature, that’s where we see that vulnerability increase,” she said.

St. Germain says the lives of children and their futures will continue to be at risk unless meaningful solutions are found.

“They are the ones who are having to live with the consequences of our failure to deal with this issue. And that’s unacceptable.”

Tom Eley and Clarissa Kurniawan are 2023 recipients of the Langara College Read-Mercer Journalism Fellowship. This feature was produced through the Fellowship.

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What parents can do to protect children

One simple step caregivers and parents can take is to have difficult conversations around sexual exploitation with their kids, said Camila Jimenez, program manager of Children of the Street.

“Because if they don’t, it will be even more challenging for children to trust them,” she said.

Clear boundaries on social media and treating video games as you would a game of catch at the park make it a whole family environment where the parents know who their child is talking to.

“Get involved, get active … get to know the chat features. Who is being talked to online? What are the protective privacy settings that I can put in there?” she said.

Many people would prefer to avoid talking about this topic, said Cpl. Sharen Leung, of the B.C. RCMP’s internet child exploitation unit.

“If they haven’t heard of the dangers of the internet, then they might think they don’t exist,” she said.

Parents need to be careful with any game or social media app with a chat feature, Leung said.

“Because then, that’s the opportunity for anyone to talk to your child,” she said.

We need to have an open dialogue around child sexual abuse material, says Diane Sowden, a recipient of the Order of Canada for her work at Children of the Street.

It is an uneasy conversation but one people must have. “If you think you’re uncomfortable, how do you think children feel?” she said.

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