Police have arrested 104 men for attempting to have sex with children forced into prostitution, following a four-year undercover human trafficking investigation in which 85 underage victims were found and 49 pimps charged in York Region since 2012.
York Regional Police Det.-Sgt. Thai Truong said 104 men were arrested as first time offenders in the investigation from 2014 to April 2017 for negotiating “the purchase of a prostituted child between the ages of 13 and 16 years old.”
Truong said that no victims of human trafficking were involved in the project and all of the suspects, who ranged in age from 18 to 81, were arrested for attempting to purchase sex with children.
“Unfortunately, there was a lot of married men,” Truong said. “Occupations from all walks of life, ethnicities from all walks of life.”
Human trafficking investigators launched Project Raphael in 2014, which Truong said was a three-pronged approach to combating the issue in the region.
WATCH: York Regional Police have arrested 104 men suspected of soliciting sex from children. Catherine McDonald reports.
Police targetted pimps, focused on rescuing victims and connecting them with community support workers and attempted to stop the demand for prostituted children.
“We essentially put up advertisements online when men were looking to purchase sex they were told that they were communicating with a child, with a prostituted child,” Truong told reporters during a press conference Friday.
“We used undercover operators for this investigation and once they were told that they were speaking with children for the most part the men would stop and we were OK with that, we really didn’t want to identify any of the men that were not looking to purchase and to buy prostituted children.”
In total, there were 10 arrests in 2014, 22 in 2015, 53 in 2016, and 19 in 2017. Forty of those cases have concluded, while 65 are still before the courts. Five of the cases had been withdrawn while three went to trial and the suspects were found guilty.
“There’s no actual child victims in this project,” he said. “If you look at it from another perspective, from a preventative measure, we’ve stopped 104 men from purchasing 104 children.”
“These men believed they were luring children and I think if we stand by and we look at things and feel like we have to wait until a child gets sexually assaulted and harmed, I don’t think we’re doing our job as police.”
Of the 104 arrests, 32 of the suspects had pleaded guilty with sentences ranging from three to seven months.
“Almost all of these men are first time offenders … they had stable jobs, and families and not the type of people who usually see in the criminal justice system,” Susan Orlando, of the Attorney General’s human trafficking prosecution team, said.
“So for a first offence, to get those sentences, it’s a significant sentence.”
Investigators researched the number underage human trafficking survivors in 2012 and found they accounted for 33 per cent of all victims.
In late 2013, police launched an initiative over the holidays to reconnect children forced into prostitution with their families. Investigators identified 31 human trafficking victims in the region working in hotels — nine of whom were under the age of 18 and reconnected with their support network.
Truong said the “alarming statistic” police identified after interviews and investigations in 2013 was the average age of entry into prostitution was 14.8 years old in York Region.
“So that was a big concern for us which really led us to the genesis of how we were going to try and combat child sex trafficking,” he said, adding there were more underage victims identified in the investigation were unable to rescue.
“There are a lot of children in the sex trade that are enslaved that we’re not finding.”
WATCH: Human trafficking specialist speaks out after York police announcement.
Truong said human trafficking “ruins lives” of adults and children, adding investigators worked “tirelessly” to identify victims.
“These girls experience significant and long lasting trauma from which most never recover,” Orlando added.
“Young lives are irreparably damaged, some completely destroyed and other lost completely.”
In 2014, police conducted further research into the number of prostitution victims that were rescued in York Region and found 45 per cent were children.
Truong said the most difficult part of the investigation was gaining the trust of the victims. Police said in many cases, those involved in prostitution are forced into the sex trade through violence, threats of violence, coercion and trickery.
Orlando said the suspects were from the Greater Toronto Area, throughout Ontario and from other provinces.
“All of the people caught in the sting were prepared to pay money to have sex with children,” she said.
“When they showed up at the hotel room that is what they expected to do. They didn’t expect to see a police officer on the other side.”