In shocking news this week, 21 teens were found during a prostitution crackdown in Winnipeg, Manitoba. According to the news release from Winnipeg Police, the teens that were located were at-risk youth in the community. All 21 of them were taken to a safe place.
Narcity reported earlier this week that the crackdown was a joint effort by Winnipeg Police and a number of community outreach organizations, called Project Return. However, this isn't the first time a crackdown like this has happened and these missing teens and Project Return are part of a bigger story in Winnipeg.
Project Return has been an ongoing effort from Winnipeg to crack down on the youth sex trade and located at-risk teens in their city. It's unclear exactly how long the project has been going on, but it has been well over a year now.
For example, on March 20, 2018, a release from Winnipeg Police, titled Project Return, confirmed that they, along with community outreach partners had "initiated a joint project during the weekend of March 16-18, 2018, with the aim of protecting youth within our city who are at a high risk of being sexually exploited."
In that weekend, the police managed to locate seven at-risk youths.
Last year there were at least two more crackdowns through Project Return. On June 19, 2018, Winnipeg Police reported that eight missing teens had been located. Then again on October 9, 2018, they reported that another six missing at-risk youth had been located.
While the latest Project Return operation, held from April 26-28, was clearly the largest with 21 missing youths being located, since March 20 the project has located a total of 42 youths. Given this high number, it begs the question, does Winnipeg have a youth sex trade problem?
To answer that simply, having a youth sex trade anywhere is a problem but what we are seeing in Winnipeg may actually point to more of a solution to the problem.
While 42 is a large number of youths that were at risk and potentially exposed to sexual exploitation, the fact that they were located and brought to safety through Project Return is a very good thing. On top of that, Winnipeg Police confirm that their "commitment to issues surrounding our missing youth and those at risk of sexual exploitation in the community will continue."
As for their community partners, they are also part of the bigger story of how Manitoba as a whole is addressing the youth sex trade in their province.
StreetReach, one of the community outreach partners in Project Return, is part of a provincial government strategy that aims to prevent sexual exploitation of children and youth in Manitoba.
The program was formed in July 2009. According to the Manitoba government website, "they work with children and young people in Winnipeg who are at the highest risk of sexual abuse through sexual exploitation previously known as youth prostitution - on the street, through the Internet and behind closed doors."
The government also reveals that the StreetReach program has received recognition across the country as a good solution to the youth sex trade problem. They say "Manitoba’s StreetReach program has received acknowledgement and accolades from other police and CFS agencies across Canada, and from other Canadian experts and writers on the issue of child sexual exploitation and trafficking, as a unique and promising response to missing, exploited and trafficked children."
StreetReach isn't the only effort by the province to combat the sex trade. For instance, Manitoba was the first province in Canada to implement mandatory child pornography reporting. They also have some of the highest penalties for offenders through their Child and Family Services Act.
Then in 2013, Manitoba also changed how they approach prostitution cases by arresting the "Johns" instead of the sex workers.
Of course, even with all these implementations, there is always more to be done. Back in June 2016, Jennifer Richardson, the manager with the province's Sexual Exploitation Unit at the time told CBC, "Even though Manitoba is really kind of seen as a leader in this area, I still think we have a lot of room to improve."
The main key to success that they highlighted back then was the frontline community services, like StreetReach, and providing stable funding to those organizations.
Now with the ongoing partnerships between Winnipeg Police, StreetReach, and others, and at least 42 at-risk youths taken off the street in the past year, it appears that rather than just a youth sex trade problem, Winnipeg has a solution as well.