VANCOUVER – At a non-nondescript, discreet compound in Cambodia, young girls form an orderly queue to be served noodles in the NewSong centre.
Routine lapses when the newest among them, a seven-year-old nicknamed Srey, barges past the line, grabs fistfuls of the slippery food and bolts out the door. She’s spotted in the backyard, furtively stuffing her face like an animal.
Her adult caregivers don’t bat an eye. It’s one of the child’s first meals since being rescued from a backstreet brothel where she was forced into sex with adult men — many of them westerners and almost certainly Canadians among them.
“When she wasn’t actually being abused by customers, they kept her chained below a table,” said Brian McConaghy, the Vancouver-based former Mountie and co-founder of the rehabilitation centre for sexually abused and exploited girls.
The brothel owners would scrape their leftovers onto the floor when they were done eating. Srey’s every meal was a competition with their dogs.
“Every scrap of food she ever got, she fought for,” McConaghy said.
In early January, McConaghy will fly again to the Southeast Asian country for a post-Christmas visit with the NewSong girls, including now ten-year-old Srey and several teens who were the victims of Canada’s first prosecuted child sex tourist, Donald Bakker.
The Vancouver man was arrested nearly a decade ago, largely as a result of the then-RCMP forensics investigator McConaghy, who had unique know-how from running a Cambodian medical charity. Each time he returns to the sanctuary, which he set-up after leaving the police force to devote himself to victims, he sees tell-tale signs indicating Canadians are still committing “grotesque” crimes against the country’s most defenceless.
Such predators travel abroad to have sex with children because they believe themselves immune to consequences, and critics argue Canada’s record doesn’t contradict the notion: Only five men have been punished under Canadian laws against child sex tourism over the past 15 years.
McConaghy and other children’s advocates — including politicians, senators and frontline police officers — want more Canadians prosecuted. Yet despite the federal Conservatives’ tough-on-crime approach, the laws’ infrequent use appears unlikely to rise quickly. Domestic problems remain highest on the public radar, and there’s only a finite envelope of money available for policing.
Awareness of the true horrors inflicted is low and almost beyond comprehension, the advocates say, resulting in little social momentum to trigger a complaints-driven system that would compel police to get more aggressive.
It’s a massive challenge that’s prompted those calling for change to take their own small steps, while allies like on-the-ground officers are left to tackle the stomach-turning scourge with the best they can muster.
Winnipeg Tory MP Joy Smith has been propelling the legislation that helps police go after bad guys abroad ever since she watched her police officer son’s hair turn “grey literally overnight” while working in Manitoba’s child exploitation unit.
“No, absolutely not,” is her reply when asked whether the quantity of child sex tourist prosecutions has been enough. “Nobody ever really believed this happened, that Canadians went to other countries.”
She urged more “proactive” measures, noting she herself has had to take one step at a time because it’s impossible to divorce action from economic realities.
“We have to do it in such a way that we have it out there every day and we do something every day,” she said.
Options she said merit consideration include seizing passports from child predators so they can’t travel, designating funding solely for child sex tourism investigations and “targeting the market,” by creating stricter mechanisms to specifically take down those who want to buy sex. That would include registering child-sex customers, educating about how they operate and teaching police about what really happens to victims, so blame is actually put on perpetrators.
About 38 countries have laws allowing authorities to hunt their own citizens for crimes committed away from home.
Canada’s sex-tourism law, with seven arrests and a handful of convictions to its credit, was enacted in 1997.
Contrast that with the arrests of 93 men in the U.S. since 2003, and about 34 prosecutions in Australia since 1994. While not all those cases have concluded with convictions, more than 1,200 Aussie sex offenders were known to have travelled overseas for sex last year.
“I doubt the figures are that different in Canada,” said Bernadette McMenamin, executive officer of the child protection charity Child Wise, based in Melbourne.
About one-quarter of sex tourists abusing children outside of North America are American and Canadian, says ECPAT USA, part of a global organization devoted to eliminating child prostitution and trafficking. Its Canadian counterpart, Beyond Borders, calls efforts by law enforcement here “largely reactionary.”
Documents released by Foreign Affairs show 73 Canadians were arrested in a foreign country for abusing or molesting children or possessing child pornography between 2009 and 2011. That figure only accounts for people who requested consular assistance after they were detained.
Sometimes Canadians are prosecuted overseas instead of at home, like the infamous case of the man dubbed “Swirl Face,” Christopher Neil. The former English teacher from B.C. distributed videos online in which he sexually assaulted young boys. He was sent back to Canada in early October after five years in a Thai prison.
Canadian senators have also highlighted the dearth of convictions.
At a hearing earlier this year by a committee examining a bill pertaining to human trafficking, Sen. Joan Fraser noted the precedent of the sex tourism bill “which we all felt so good about, but nothing much has changed.”
Sen. Mobina Jaffer concurred with her colleague that five convictions has been too few: “Most of them have been fortuitous; it has not been due to the police investigation or anything,” she said, according to minutes of the June 7 meeting.
Jaffer went on to question why Canada doesn’t have investigations officers embedded in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia.
McConaghy has seen the complexities of a child sex tourism file first-hand, and how the investigations get bogged down. While Canada does have liaison officers covering every country of the world, they have wide-ranging responsibilities and in the sex tourism regions, their expertise is usually in drugs.
It was because of his special skill set the 22-year cop was able to leverage overseas relationships to clinch the Bakker case. He assisted the Vancouver Police Department after they found videotapes depicting vicious sex attacks on Vietnamese children while investigating the hotel worker in the ghastly assaults of local prostitutes.
McConaghy said he doesn’t know any on-the-ground officers who aren’t willing and eager to go after predators, but “police don’t have the resources to be aware of, track and actually work on the files overseas.”
He said the U.S. takes a harder line, staffing embassies to work with foreign governments in hot spots, while Canada is still just building up a federal team with expertise.
He called for a scheme to fight child sex tourists in the same vein as the $25 million national action plan devoted to human traffickers, as well as a mechanism to warn other countries if known offenders will be travelling abroad and for an online repository of images where sex attacks have occurred (without showing victims) that the public can access to provide tips.
McConaghy believes he could spur action overnight, simply by filling a theatre on Parliament Hill with politicians and showing them 20 seconds of any child sex assault video shot by homegrown pedophiles.
“North Americans scare them the most,” he said of the girls living in the NewSong centre, who’ve described their experiences to trained counsellors. “It’s brutality — it’s not just sexual. It’s beatings and violence included.”
Canadian police chase child sex tourists only after receiving a complaint or a request from another force for assistance, said Insp. Sergio Pasin, who heads the Ottawa-based national co-ordination centre for child exploitation investigations. Each agency decides how many resources it requires.
Investigations of overseas crimes requires evidence to be gathered in the foreign jurisdiction, and that can be very expensive, Pasin said. He couldn’t provide an average cost, noting factors vary from the number of investigators, to witnesses needing to be identified and interviewed, to the ambiguous time frame itself.
In British Columbia, there are 12 staff comprising its integrated child exploitation unit, which conducts investigations on its own as well as works with 131 provincial detachments. Its budget is more than $2 million annually, including salaries. About 70 per cent is provincial dollars.
The B.C. officer heading two teams that track sexual predators at home and abroad said she’s never had a situation where she didn’t get outside co-operation or was forced to put an investigation on hold.
“You only have to listen to a child suffer once and you’re permanently changed,” said Staff Sgt. Bev Csikos.
In one recent case, Csikos and her team were set to chase a Canadian in Africa when the whole thing was called off.
“Before we resolved the case, someone in that other country took it into their own hands to stop him from sexually abusing other kids.”
But Csikos noted crimes in foreign countries can be difficult to bring to prosecution based on the high standards required in Canada for evidence. She said difficulty mounts for officers to first locate and then gain trust of young victims when they have just been abused by westerners.
“We want to save all of the children, but we can only save one at a time,” she said.
When McConaghy arrives in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in January, he knows he’ll see the usual cast of characters: “aged, scabby, fat, sweaty white guys,” sitting alone at tables in restaurants with no equivalent wives, waiting for night to fall.
He’s spoken to travel agents in Vancouver who’ve realized they have clients who fits the M.O. — men who travel abroad to Southeast Asia about the same time each year, on their own, without business reasons or extended family to visit.
But he’ll compartmentalize his disgust in order to share the joy of freedom with the girls at the sanctuary, funded by his charity Ratanak International. It currently houses 39 girls from age five to late teens — it has a capacity of 58 girls — who are under the care of more than 60 staff. Many of those who grow older move to half-way houses to continue their healing.
He and the staff will take the group out for a treat, perhaps pizza, and he expects to be jokingly chastised like daughters might do with a father figure when he brings them Christmas gifts like scarves or T-shirts.
“I acknowledge I know who they are, I know their background, I love them anyway,” he said, noting they’ve been rejected by society. “So that is the best gift I can give them, let them know they are absolutely special.”