Addressing Dark Trends in Child Sex Trafficking and Exploitation in Canada

By: Julia Gonsalves

Unpacking Equity is a collaboration between the Public Policy and Governance Review and the Equity, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (EDPP) at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. This series aims to explain equity-related policy issues and break down complicated topics involving equity, diversity and inclusion. Policy professionals can gain a better understanding of these complex issues in order to incorporate an equity lens into their practice. To learn more, please get in touch with the EDPP.

Addressing Dark Trends in Child Sex Trafficking and Exploitation in Canada

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed dangerous gaps in efforts to stop child sex trafficking and exploitation in Canada and abroad. What was already a difficult crime to detect has become even more invisible. Statistics largely underrepresent the true scope of child sex trafficking and exploitation. We do know that the vast majority of child sex trafficking in Canada is domestic and that young women and girls make up 97% of victims. Within these statistics, it is well-reported that Indigenous women and girls face a greater risk for this type of gender-based violence.

COVID-19 has created a traffickers’ dream

Victims are more isolated and harder to reach than ever before. Reporting and identification have decreased as school closures and restrictions imposed on healthcare services limit exposure to mandatory reporters. The strain on health systems has resulted in prioritizing urgent medical needs, creating barriers for trafficked youth to access care. Stay-at-home orders have forced victims to remain isolated in abusive situations with their traffickers while also increasing the reliance on traffickers as a means of escaping family violence in their homes.

Demand for youth housing, crucial for victims escaping trafficking, has increased substantially while capacity is severely reduced due to public health guidelines. Community organizations that support victims of child sex trafficking are also at risk of closure amid funding constraints. In-person interventions led by law enforcement have entirely halted, representing another crucial barrier to outreach. Traffickers are capitalizing on these limitations, making promises of love, security, and shelter even more alluring.

Reports of online child sex trafficking are rapidly trending upward

Time spent online has skyrocketed for both children and adults. Globally, there have been unprecedented increases in the demand, production, and circulation of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) online. From April to June of 2020, Cybertip (Canada’s reporting tool for online child exploitation) reported an 81% increase in reports of youth sexual exploitation. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also indicated rising trends in cyber-grooming, trafficking, and CSAM livestreams. These numbers are expected to continue to increase and will likely persist long after COVID-19. CSAM is not limited to the dark web, it is on all mainstream online platforms. A New York Times investigation reported that approximately 12 million of the 18.4 million reports of CSAM worldwide were found on Facebook.

Addressing child sex trafficking and exploitation now and beyond COVID-19

In 2019, Canada introduced its National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking and the 24/7 Human Trafficking Hotline. Policymakers have also taken several steps to combat online child sex trafficking and exploitation, including:

COVID-19 has emphasized the urgency of pursuing the goals in the national strategy and the treatment of child sex trafficking as an equally emergent crisis. Governments must promptly meet the funding needs of community organizations to enable capacity for vital in-person support. We must work towards making information and services reachable, including shelters, counselling, and community supports. The same social media channels that have been weaponized by traffickers can also be employed as a mechanism for prevention and outreach.

Long-term investments should focus on creating an integrated network of services for prevention and support. Healthcare, education, law enforcement, and social services must prioritize sustainable inter-ministerial and community partnerships, with multi-disciplinary teams that inform coordinated solutions. Comprehensive education on child sex trafficking should be regular and ongoing, not a tick-box item in professional training. One of the aims should be to increase confidence in reporting suspected child sex trafficking for an expanded range of frontline providers.

There must be a greater effort to convert existing institutions into hubs for prevention. Schools are an excellent place to start. They present an opportunity to bring resources directly to the child and address early vulnerabilities, including abuse, neglect, low self-esteem, and mental illness, among others. Embedding greater multi-sectoral resources in K-12 education will support a preventative model and create continuity of care.

Additionally, the response to online child sexual exploitation is not matching the gravity of the problem. Canada is currently working on legislation that requires online platforms to take down CSAM within 24 hours. This is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough. The complacency of tech giants and the absence of strong legislation are major impediments to ending child sex trafficking and exploitation. Companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Pornhub make CSAM widely available with very little policing. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection highlights gaps in the current laws requiring companies to remove CSAM, including that “age of maturity” is extremely subjective, and content that is not considered direct abuse of children is often allowed to remain online. Encryption and privacy policies still limit the degree to which information can be shared with law enforcement.

The federal government must seek to introduce legislation that will guarantee the removal of all CSAM. Loopholes should be blocked, and the definition of CSAM should be made as clear and expansive as possible to ensure consistent application across all platforms. The government and law enforcement should continue to work with companies to introduce screening mechanisms that prevent CSAM from going online in the first place. Companies must be held accountable for adherence to legislation and the agreements made in the Voluntary Principles. If the picture is not clear yet, consider the fact that tech companies have begun flagging and removing misinformation but are reluctant to agree that CSAM should also be subject to the same consequences.

As child sex trafficking and exploitation rise at alarming rates in our local and virtual communities, tackling this epidemic will require coordinated efforts from the public and private sectors, informed by leadership from survivors.

Julia Gonsalves is a second year Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and a Senior Equity Analyst for the Equity, Diversity, and Public Policy Initiative. Her recent work at the Ontario Ministry of Education included supporting the integration of Human Trafficking education in Ontario schools. She is interested in issues of gender-based violence and exploring how public policy can better serve racialized and marginalized populations. She graduated from the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Sociology and is passionate about work at the intersection of social policy and public health.

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