Winnipeg residents, already living in one of Canada's most crime-ridden cities, are being rocked by sensational allegations of a prostitution ring operated by two women that victimized more than 30 children.
About half the youngsters were involved in prostitution, police said, and the other half, including one just 22 months old, were subjected to abuse by being around illegal activity on a regular basis, including drug use.
"You have to consider any child a victim," Patrol Sergeant Kelly Dennison said.
The women have been charged with prostitution-related offences, including procuring children for sex and living off the avails of prostitution, and crimes relating to the corruption of minors. The activities allegedly occurred between June and last month in a run-down area of the city's west end and involved children no older than 16.
While Winnipeg is no stranger to crime -- it has the highest per capita murder rate of Canada's nine largest cities -- the case has deeply shaken residents.
"They're horrified. They don't understand it. They wonder why," Councillor Gord Steeves said.
"It's a huge source of concern," added Mr. Steeves, the chairman of the city's protection and community services committee.
Mr. Steeves said crime in the city increasingly is "leading to a common denominator, which is drugs. . . . It is the first thing that pops into people's mind when you see this."
While police are tight-lipped about details because the case is still being investigated, court documents indicate one of several bail conditions for one of the accused includes a requirement to attend a program dealing with cocaine-addiction.
(Police allege that the accused woman has already violated another of the bail conditions by being in contact with a 13-year-old girl.)
The other woman allegedly "did have knowledge of sexual immorality and did participate in the use of illegal drugs in the home of a child" under 18, according to the court documents. Three of five such children named in the documents have the same surname as the woman.
Mayor Sam Katz was quick to note that Winnipeg is not the only city with a child-prostitution problem.
"I don't think this type of crime is unique to Winnipeg. I'm sure it's taking place all over North America, sadly," he said in an interview yesterday.
(Quebec City was shocked when the city's top radio host and several businessmen were charged after a crackdown on a teenage prostitution ring in 2002. The radio host, Robert Gillet, was later convicted as was at least one businessman.)
Rosalind Prober, president of Beyond Borders, a Winnipeg-based organization that fights sexual exploitation of children around the world, said the recent case is disturbing because of the large number of children allegedly involved and the complicity of women.
"Every city has problems with child prostitution," she said. Recruiting "damaged" youngsters -- including runaways and those who are in trouble with the law or in foster care -- into prostitution is "very, very easy," she added.
All it takes is a home with no rules, a place to sleep and free food, alcohol and drugs. After a while, she said, the kids are forced into prostitution to repay the largesse.
"It's all about money. It's all about the ugly underbelly of society and how [criminals] go about getting money," she said.
"That's easy to understand. What's hard to understand is the demand side."