Thursday, December 21, 2000

You must be helped

Ontario has good reason to want to protect prostitutes under 18 from the life they may have been forced into by circumstance or conscienceless pimps.

To achieve that end, however, the government is resorting to questionable means. It plans to strip youths of their freedom and, depending on what a judge or justice of the peace will allow, confine them for up to a month against their will. It plans to let police and child-care workers march into massage parlours, strip clubs and any other place to seize youths they believe need saving.

Alberta did the same two years ago with its Protection of Children Involved in Prostitution Act. It wanted youths whom it perceived to be at risk to go to safe houses for counselling, medical attention and untroubled sleep. It therefore authorized police officers and child-care workers to apprehend those youths from wherever they were, without a warrant, and to lock them in a safe house without a hearing for 72 hours.

That project ran afoul of Alberta Provincial Court Judge Karen Jordan, who ruled last summer that the law unreasonably stripped the youths of liberty without judicial scrutiny and without letting them confront their accusers. Alberta responded last month with amendments that recognized the youths have another protector — the constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The law now says a youth must be informed immediately of her or his right to legal representation and court review, and of the availability of Legal Aid, and to be told why and for how long she or he is to be held. Brought quickly before a judge, the youth will have a chance to argue, for instance, that she has not been forced into prostitution and is in no danger.

This, and Ontario's proposed echoing of the Alberta law, may be enough to satisfy the courts. Judge Jordan ruled that it was reasonable under the Charter not to give the youths advance notice of apprehension or to require that officers obtain a warrant, given "our belief system as a community" in the importance of rescuing underage prostitutes from abuse. "Female participants, whether children or adults, are subject to serious harm and even death at the hands of pimps and johns," she wrote. "…The risk of sexually transmitted disease is so high as to be a significant public health risk."

But civil liberties are only part of the story. The more pragmatic question is, does the project work? Forcing youths to shake an addiction or listen to counselling for five or 30 days may relieve the frustration of those previously unable to reach the kids any other way, but that doesn't mean the youths won't simply return to their previous life once released. In Alberta, more than a third of the youths apprehended as of August had been forced through the program more than once.

If the message is that young people should respect themselves enough to get out of an abusive and exploitive relationship, the youths may wonder what sort of respect is being shown them by seizure and confinement against their will.

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Created: December 21, 2000
Last modified: January 19, 2001
CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710