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Society ignores child victims of sex trade

Winnipeg Free Press

Sun May 17 2009
Page: A10
Section: Columns
Byline: Robert Marshall

Sexual abuse comes in many forms. That's part of what a few hundred cops, court employees and social service workers who crammed into the Fort Garry Hotel this past week learned during the annual conference sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. They also came to share their insights that surround the hyper-sexualization of children, something that makes most of us cringe and sometimes, just tune out.

It's uncomfortable and something that most of us would like to leave in the hands of the official practitioners of our communities -- the police, courts and corrections. But we shouldn't because some of the wrongs are simply beyond their control.

The conference brought together experts and advocates from North America, England and Ireland who have spent years battling against child sexualization and its irreversible harm. It's a frustrating mission given what freedom of expression and rights-oriented law have come to mean in this modern age. And while technology should not be demonized, its quantum advances have allowed the problem to proliferate at rates never seen before.

Sexualizing children and turning them into commodities is clear abuse. Being indifferent to it says something about us all.

Underage sex-trade workers don't matter to most. They are the throw-aways. Faceless kids from troubled backgrounds. We like to think their numbers are small, but they aren't. They stand on street corners waiting to make a buck. They wait for strangers in strange cars, well aware that their innocence is something from long ago. Others are put to work behind closed doors and like their street-corner associates they know that most don't care if they live, die or just disappear. Organized crime has its fingerprints all over child exploitation from underage human trafficking -- yes, here in Canada -- to the production and marketing of illicit child videos.

Beyond these classic scenarios of abuse, corporate Canada's sometimes- questionable business strategies feed the problem. Some corporations offer pageant-type television shows that parade small children provocatively across television screens. Other enterprises advertise their products using young women who are purposely made to look like young girls posing suggestively.

The message to the child in the pageant or a young teen seeking a personal identity becomes clear -- and it isn't pretty.

Perhaps worse is that this legitimate business is a boon for the child predator whose primal needs can be met in the short term by viewing the five- year-old with eye shadow, spray-on tan and twirling a baton. But the bombardment of suggestive child images on TV and billboards elevates and increases those needs and becomes all-encompassing leading to the harder, sexual and criminal behaviour that will destroy a child.

Experts like conference panel member Joe Sullivan have more sobering news. A predator's sexual orientation toward children can not be cured. It can only be treated in the sometimes-vain attempts to manage and minimize risk.

And who gets treated? According to another conference panel member, Tink Palmer, who has worked in the child protection business in England for a quarter-century, only about five per cent of disclosed cases of abuse in the U. K. result in conviction. It's safe to assume that most treatment is court- ordered following conviction. But as Sullivan says, all treatment is not successful and so that five per cent conviction rate speaks volumes about the court's inability to protect children.

The current state of child protection lacks vigour. In part because of the enormous denial about the extent and degree of harm it can cause. Maybe it's easier (especially if we're not directly affected) to slough off those rovocative ads and denigrating pageant shows as a sign of the times instead of the very real alternative that they are fuel for the child predator. Maybe it's OK to accept child prostitution on our streets because most of the girls are aboriginal, from total dysfunction and destined for welfare rolls. Maybe we think it's none of our business.

Panel member John Wiens of the University of Manitoba noted we have a community ready to go to war over some speeding tickets in a construction zone where nobody was hurt.

Yet this calamity of abuse seldom produces more than a ripple. As Wiens said, ambivalence to abuse can be easily judged by the lack of public outrage. Maybe it's a sign we've lost our moral compass.

Robert Marshall is a security consultant and former Winnipeg police officer.
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