Members of the Abbotsford Community Action team include (from left) Bev Olfert, Rebecca Tice, Tally Clement, Mandy Aujla, Wanda Phillips, Mary Boonstra and Devinder Dherari-Sidhu. (Submitted photo)

Members of the Abbotsford Community Action team include (from left) Bev Olfert, Rebecca Tice, Tally Clement, Mandy Aujla, Wanda Phillips, Mary Boonstra and Devinder Dherari-Sidhu. (Submitted photo)

Abbotsford campaign raises awareness about sexual exploitation of youth

Experts advised to watch kids for signs, including unexplained money or gifts

The Abbotsford Community Action Team (ACAT) is raising awareness in Abbotsford middle and high schools about sexual exploitation.

The Abbotsford campaign coincides with the provincially recognized Stop the Exploitation of Children and Youth Awareness Week from March 7 to 13.

Sexual exploitation of youth is defined as any type of sexual activity with a youth in exchange for money, drugs, food, shelter or any other consideration.

Mandy Aujla, a youth worker in the Stop Exploiting Youth program at Archway Community Services, said awareness of the issue is crucial.

“It is important we discuss what exploitation is and how we can be exploited by people who we think we can trust,” she said.

Posters and online information are being used to educate students, their caregivers and teachers. The posters feature four of the possible warning signs of sexual exploitation: an age difference between the youth and the exploiter, lifestyle changes, gifts and becoming isolated.

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A QR code allows students to anonymously report if they are feeling unsafe through the ERASE (Expect Respect and a Safe Education) initiative of the BC Ministry of Education.

The ACAT usually organizes an annual rally to raise public awareness, but due to COVID-19 concerns, they’ve shifted their focus to school and online campaigns to educate youth, their families and the general public.

“Raising awareness about the issue is the first step to supporting our vulnerable youth and stopping the cycle of exploitation,” said Bev Olfert, executive director of the Abbotsford Youth Commission.

Now in its 24th year, the week recognizes the importance of supporting communities to develop prevention, education, enforcement, and intervention strategies to address the sexual exploitation of children and youth.

Parents, teachers and friends are encouraged to be on the lookout for youth who have unexplained money, cellphones, or gifts. Youth may have bruises, become withdrawn or moody, or be protective about relationships.

“Youth crave social connection, are developmentally curious, and way more tech savvy than the majority of their parents. This creates an environment where youth are vulnerable to exploitation online, which can also lead to in-person exploitation,” said Wanda Phillips, a team lead at the Archway Youth Resource Centre (YRC).

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She said the YRC has seen an increase in referrals concerning online exploitation in recent years, especially as COVID pushed more interactions online.

“The risk of online exploitation is limitless, which is why it’s so important for parents and caregivers to stay engaged in their children’s online activities,” Phillips said.

“We also encourage parents and caregivers to focus on strengthening their relationship with their teens so they can have open conversations about what is going on in their lives, both online and off.”

Anyone who suspects someone is being sexually exploited is asked to contact the Abbotsford Police Department. The Archway Youth Resource Centre can also provide support and resources.

Visit Archway.ca/SEY for more information.