A program unique to Alberta is rescuing sexually exploited children and teenagers from years of victimization.
Myja Willi- not her real name – was among those victims. She was sexually abused starting at a young age by several men in a position of trust.
She was 13 when she was separated from her family and placed in a group home, where her life took another harrowing turn.
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“I got into some trouble with some of the girls, smoked pot a couple of times and I started smoking,” says Myja. “And then I started having sex at a young age; I was like 13-14 and then I ended up getting sexually assaulted again.”
Unable to face the years of abuse that haunted her, she began a journey down another dark path, a life of addiction and being used for sex.
“I was sleeping at random men’s houses; I would do anything to get a bottle of vodka or just a hit of some sort. The way that I would make myself numb to situations was to just drink. Just drink it all away, it’s fine.”
After Myja tried to kill herself by laying across CTrain tracks, she was brought by police and social workers to a safe house where she was detained for treatment. She was 17.
“It was so scary because you’re taken out of society completely. You cannot have a cigarette, you cannot drink. You’re put on detox and going on detox is so hard.”
Myja was detained under Alberta’s Protection of Sexually Exploited Children’s Act (PESECA), the only legislation of its kind in Canada. Staff at PESECA safe houses have less than 7 week to help victims recover from the cycle of addiction and abuse before they must be released.
Bryan Hume, the coordinator of the APSEC safe house in Calgary, has spent more than 15 years working with sexually exploited youth.
“A lot of what we try to do at the beginning of a young person’s stay here, is try and help them get their basic needs met. So maybe they’re detoxing …. maybe they need to develop a little bit of trust and that only comes with seeing how people are consistently going to be with them.”
Hume is a supporter of the legislation, saying many victims don’t seek help voluntarily. 2014 there were 50 apprehensions in Calgary, 28 by police and 22 by Child Family Services.
“We don’t have kids coming through the door, going, ‘yeah, I’ve been sexually exploited and I’m coming here for treatment.’ We have kids that deny that. We have parents that don’t want to see that, or find it difficult and very challenging to think not my daughter or not my son.”
WATCH: Bryan Hume talks about a Calgary Safe House for victims of sexual exploitation
Mjya says it was her passion for music, and hard work, that got her through her time there.
Four years later, at the age of 21, she still struggles with addiction but returns to the safe house to mentor others.
“I would come back if I could — I would in a heartbeat. But I know I can do this; I’m strong.
“I can honestly say if it wasn’t for coming here, I wouldn’t be here today.”