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Children in provincial care need better protection from online sexual exploitation: Alberta advocate

Alberta's child and youth advocate is calling on the province to improve services to protect children in provincial care from online sexual exploitation.
Alberta's child and youth advocate is calling on the province to improve services to protect children in provincial care from online sexual exploitation. Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press

Alberta’s child and youth advocate is calling on the province to improve services to protect children in provincial care from online sexual exploitation.

In a report released Tuesday on the suicide of a 17-year-old named “Onessa,” Del Graff said she became “vulnerable to being exploited” after accessing internet sites and chatting with adults.

“Onessa’s death was tragic and sheds light on a relatively new area of concern: the impact of internet use on young people,” he said in the report.

He called on Alberta’s Human Services ministry to consider an enhanced definition of child exploitation. He also wants the province to provide assessment and interventions specific to young people at risk for online sexual exploitation.

“Although legislation and policy in Alberta reflects some of these principles, it is not as comprehensive,” Graff said. “It must focus on identifying and intervening earlier.”

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In a statement, Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir said the province accepts Graff’s recommendations and commits to “explore necessary actions to address these issues.”

“The sexual exploitation and abuse of children is a devastating crime,” Sabir said. “No child should have to experience violence, nor suffer silently as a survivor. Our government will continue to be there for children in need, ensuring supports are in place for those who need a place to turn for help.

“It is a tragedy when a young person is lost to suicide. My heart goes out to those who knew and loved this young person.”

Sabir said the province has invested nearly $26 million to address sexual abuse and exploitation across Alberta.

“Through these investments, we are working toward establishing a province-wide network of supports and services for youth in need. This is an important step, but we know there is much more that can be done.”

Onessa became involved with Alberta child intervention services when she was 14, and moved out of her home after a conflict with her mother, Graff’s report said. She received services from the province off and on until about five months before her death.

Onessa used drugs, self-injured and shared intimate images of herself with a young man in his 20s online. She did not get help from the province to address her vulnerability to such exploitation and a pattern of similar, “escalating situations” followed, the report said.

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“The internet provided an environment where she could meet people and keep those relationships private,” Graff said. “In these communications, Onessa shared intimate information, which put her at risk of being sexually exploited.”

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