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Raising awareness about sexual exploitation

Mother of troubled, drug-addicted former teen shares her story in hopes of educating others

The story of Diane Sowden and her daughter is enough to give any parent nightmares.

When her daughter was 13, Sowden was like any proud parent of a daughter who earned straight A's, had a zest for life and was a bit mature for her age. Little did she know that the three-month summer between Grade 7 and 8 would send Katie into a downward spiral for the long term.

This is the story of a family that failed to save its child from great suffering not because it didn't care, but because the courts, the social agencies and the law of the land wouldn't let them.

"In 1993, when my husband and I were first quickly educated about the whole issue of child prostitution, we were shocked at the lack of knowledge or support," said Sowden.

Sowden and her family lived in Coquitlam in a pleasant upper-middle-class enclave. In 1993, their 13-year-old daughter started experimenting with drugs.

"Katie was a really bright girl. She had straight A's at school and was very mature for her age, so she really didn't fit in with Grade 7 boys and was very much interested in older teenage boys," she said. "She thought she was smarter than them and that she would be able to keep herself safe."

Sowden said Katie ended up "dating" a 27-year-old who, as Sowden later learned, was known to police.

"He started to manipulate her into disappearing on the weekends, she got involved in illegal activities with him [sexual intercourse] and was introduced to drugs," said Sowden.

"Within a very short period of time she was addicted to crack cocaine."

Sowden said it all happened so fast "from the time she started disappearing and connecting with him to the time she had an actual drug addiction was about three months."

The free drugs quickly became a drug debt and she owed her "boyfriend" a substantial amount of money.

"By that time she had already left the family home, she was disconnected from her friends, school had gone back for the next year and she didn't," Sowden said.

Katie was then "sold" to a pair of older men in Vancouver to cover the drug debt and began working the streets in what used to be called the Kiddie Stroll.

"She was actually sold to someone for the drug debt," Sowden said. "It's human trafficking.

"I keep trying to make everyone understand what human trafficking is, because we're all concerned about human trafficking on a global level and not understanding it's happening to our girls in our own communities."

The Sowdens reported their daughter as a runaway. The police said they could do nothing. Because people knew where she was, she wasn't missing.

Then the parents went to social services to argue that the girl was in need of protection. Social services turned them away, because their daughter didn't want help, and because she had a supportive family to return to if she wanted.

"They said it wasn't that she needed protection, it was bad behaviour," Sowden, adding that child prostitution wasn't identified as child abuse until 1999.

Then Sowden's husband did what most fathers would do and tried to physically grab her off the street and take her home. The police warned him not to try it again, or he and Diane Sowden might be charged with confining a child against her will. Sowden said they would have risked it, but they had their other children to worry about.

Seventeen years later, Sowden regrets that decision.

"If you spoke to Katie today, she would say she needed someone in authority to say, 'No, you can't do that,'" Sowden said.

"And if that meant holding her against her will, she says that was needed."

Still on the street at age 30, Katie's attempts to get clean over the years have failed time and time again, and she has given birth to five crack-addicted children.

"It's like a Hollywood movie," Sowden said. "It doesn't seem real but this kind of stuff happens.

"She's come off and gotten clean over the years and then relapsed. She moved from smoking cocaine to smoking heroin to injecting heroin.

"The impact is unbelievable on family, on society and on the individual the consequences are so severe."

Sowden said that's why it's important to teach prevention, so much so that she was inspired in 1995 to launch Children of the Street, a provincial society and federally sanctioned charity dedicated to preventing the sexual exploitation of children and youth in B.C.

In light of the approaching Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week, Sowden came to speak with Sea to Sky service providers during a workshop last month at the Squamish Library. She emphasized the importance of growing awareness early on and connecting exploited youth with support groups.

Stopping the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth Awareness Week is March 7 to 13 in B.C. The week recognizes the importance of supporting communities to develop prevention, education, enforcement and intervention strategies to address the sexual exploitation of children and youth.

This year is the 13th annual sexual exploitation week. Fuchsia-coloured ribbons will be distributed throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor to promote awareness.

The ribbons are fuchsia coloured to symbolize efforts in preventing sexual exploitation of youth and children fuschia is a combination of red for red light districts and purple, the provincial colour for violence prevention.

Andrea Sentesy, Sea to Sky Free From Exploitation (SAFFE) project coordinator and children and family counselor at the Howe Sound Women's Centre, attended the workshop and emphasized the importance of the issue in the corridor.

"SAFFE is a prevention and education project," she said. "We go to the schools and do workshops on sexual exploitation in Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and Mount Currie."

In 2007, SAFFE conducted a survey in Squamish that found 73 per cent of youth age 12 to 18 had experienced some form of sexual exploitation, mostly in the form of older men offering them free drugs or alcohol.

"It's hard to make teenagers realize what's happening because a lot of them don't see it as sexual exploitation," Sentesy said. "They just see it as, 'It's cool that this older guy's paying attention to me' and they don't necessarily think about why he might be giving her free booze every weekend and inviting her to these parties with these older guys, and paying all this extra attention to you and buying you nice things."

She said there are different forms of sexual exploitation. The form that Sentesy sees the most in the Sea to Sky Corridor is unhealthy relationships.

"It is sexual exploitation when there are those big age differences," she said. "If it's a 14- or 15-year-old dating a 25-year-old and he's providing her with things that she needs in exchange for sexual favours, especially if she's homeless or has been kicked out of her house, then that's not a regular relationship.

"That's sexual exploitation and a criminal offence because she can't legally give her consent to be in that relationship, and that's in place to protect minors."

The legal age of consent in Canada is 16, although until 1999 it was 14. Sowden played a large role in rallying independent MP Chuck Cadman to get that changed.

Sentesy said it's sometimes hard to change the general public's image of sexual exploitation.

"Here in the corridor it's not girls walking down the street like on the Downtown Eastside," she said. "That's a whole other sort of form of exploitation and there are recruiters that come to Squamish and Whistler to try to get girls into the sex trade and onto the street, but it starts off smaller than that."

Wesley McVey, Sea to Sky Youth Justice Services probation officer, deals with youth integrated in this type of scenario on a regular basis. He said sexual exploitation covers a wide range of situations.

"It's from one end of the spectrum with the girl who has too much to drink and is taken advantage of to a systematic, habitual way of getting drugs or other substances from older people in exchange for sexual exploitation," he said.

"Often young people between 12 and 17 have much older friends they often consider boyfriends they often don't realize they're being exploited. They're getting their needs met and they don't realize that those needs should be met in other ways."

He said the key is getting youth to recognize that the trade exists and that they're being exploited, which allows them to get in touch with the right support systems.

The workshop also focused on the intensified issue of predators luring young girls and boys into the sex trade via the Internet.

"People need to understand that the problem is much more underground because of the Internet," said Sentesy. "Whereas it used to have the face of the prostitute or the girl walking the street, now it has the face of hidden behind a computer screen.

"Just because you can't see it happening doesn't mean it's not happening."