Court hears harrowing tales of youth prostitution victims

Advocacy organization says public needs to be aware that pimps are luring teens via social media

Keeping predators off the streets and away from young people is what's behind the efforts of a Coquitlam group that is monitoring two high-profile sexual exploitation cases currently before B.C. Supreme Court.

The Children of the Street Society — founded in 1995 to prevent at-risk youth from being drawn into the sex trade — has been following cases in which men are accused of luring underage girls and boys into prostitution, and keeping them there through violence, intimidation and drugs.

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In the first case, Michael William Bannon is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to 22 charges relating to the prostitution of underage victims — kids between 14 and 17 years of age.

In victim impact statements read Wednesday, Bannon is accused of contacting them via Facebook and going to elaborate means to keep them under his influence, including posing as their father to other parents and school authorities.

In the second case, Sowden is awaiting to learn what sentences will be for Tamim Albashir, 26, and Kasra Mohsenipour, 25, who were found guilty of 17 of 19 charges in connection with offences committed against female victims, including a 15-year-old girl, in Port Coquitlam, Vancouver and Edmonton. The crimes include recruitment, prostitution, and trafficking in persons, and occurred from May 2013 to April 2016.

Both cases are cautionary tales at a time when social media is making youth more vulnerable to contact by strangers, said Sowden. Among the victims are teens from the Tri-Cities.

According to Sowden, the crimes committed against underage youth show the need for vigilance in communities such as the Tri-Cities while being in court during sentencing and listening to victim impact statements is necessary to show support to young victims, who will likely spend years trying to get their lives back together.

“It’s not just court,” Sowden said, “it’s all the things that come after,” including trauma counselling and, often, drug rehab.

At Wednesday’s sentencing hearing for Bannon, Sowden said she was impressed at the amount of support provided for the young people. In addition to parents, victim support workers, a support dog and members of the Vancouver Police Department were helping the youths.

Children of the Street has won awards for its education programs for young people, parents and service providers, and other members of the community, but Sowden said her organization also supports families dealing with sexual exploitation of youth.

Attending court hearings is part of the job, according to Sowden, who is also a Coquitlam school trustee.

Sowden said being present in court helps the victims because “they know someone cares about them,” while information gathered about predators’ tactics will be used in upcoming workshops for schools and service providers.

The stories are particularly harrowing but not uncommon, said Tiana Jacquet, Children of the Street's program director. She said the organization receives disclosures about sexual exploitation of youth weekly, and social media is a common method pimps use to connect with their victims.

For example, Bannon used Facebook to make initial contact and promised one girl a modelling job. But his real motives were to drug her and set her up with male customers — he had already advertised her services online.

The girl was taken to a Vancouver hotel where she was drugged and had between 25 to 28 sexual encounters on a weekend. She was later picked up by police, which prompted the investigation.

In all, there were nine victims in the Bannon case and the charges relate to incidents that took place between 2014 and 2015.

“It was extremely difficult, lots of tears,” Sowden said of Wednesday’s court hearing, and she praised the young people for bravely telling their story.

Next week, she expects to hear the judge’s sentencing for Bannon after a joint Crown and defence recommendation was made for 14 years of jail time.

Meanwhile, decisions on the sentences of Albashir and Mohsenipour are expected soon and Sowden hopes for lots of jail time because of the charges of human trafficking, which involve more control and assault, and carry a higher penalty than pimp-related charges.

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