Poverty is a major contributing factor in the sexual exploitation of Newfoundland and Labrador youth — exploitation that is chronically underreported, says the coordinator of the Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth (CASEY).
The group's co-ordinator, Amnesty Cornelius, said the organization sees exploitation happening when youth can't access transportation, are homeless or have problems with substance use.
"There is a massive power dynamic between a youth who is being exploited, who has an unmet need, and someone who is able to meet that need and has the funds and resources to sustain that," Cornelius said.
Cornelius said exploitation in Newfoundland and Labrador is less likely to happen through organized crime, which is more prevalent in provinces like Nova Scotia. Instead, she said, it's happening in family units and small social circles — including typically tight-knit rural communities — and often through social media.
"In order to effectively address this, we need community-led responses to community-identified issues, which is a little bit different than what we see when we see, like, gang involvement or organized crime," she said.
Cornelius said concerns about police response, retraumatization through the legal system and the power dynamic between victim and perpetrator all contribute to underreporting.
"Coming forward to report this is massive, very challenging, and systems are working against folks with these experiences. So there's a lot of work to be done in response to this, more so than just saying, 'Here's some more money,' but also addressing how our systems perpetuate this issue," she said.
According to Statistics Canada, only a fraction of sexual offences come to the attention of law enforcement, and sexual exploitation of children is even more likely to go unreported.
Input from people with lived experiences
Cornelius said underreporting means evidence-based studies regarding sexual exploitation in Newfoundland and Labrador are scarce but CASEY is able to rely on people with lived experience. Cornelius said the main purpose of the organization is to raise awareness of the sexual exploitation of youth and amplify the voices of survivors.
"We know folks in our communities have this experience and we know that they know what's needed in order to best address it and prevent it," she said.
Beginning Monday, CASEY is holding events to mark the Week to Address the Sexual Exploitation of Youth, including training for parents, a film screening and a social event specifically for people with lived experiences.
Women and Gender Equality Minister Pam Parsons said her office funds CASEY "to equip them, of course, with the resources and the tools that they need to do this very important work."
The organization gets $62,100 a year in government money plus donations — enough to cover Cornelius's salary and some operating expenses. Cornelius said she'd like to see government funding increase to $100,000 a year, enough to add more staff, like a peer navigator, and expand their reach to more communities.
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Office of Women and Gender Equality said funding for projects such as CASEY is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
The statement pointed to the new funding application process for community groups put in place as part of the 2022 provincial budget. According to the statement, the government has provided an additional $5 million in core government funding for community groups.
"We encourage groups, including CASEY, to submit proposals for funding once that process is in place. The Office of Women and Gender Equality welcomes continued conversation with our community partners to identify ways to strengthen their services and programs," said the statement.
Earlier this year, another Thrive program specifically helping victims of sexual exploitation ages 14 to 29 was forced to downsize after federal money ran out. Thrive executive director Angela Crockwell said she submitted funding requests to the provincial government — including the Office of Women and Gender Equality — but hasn't received any commitments.