TORONTO — Child exploitation is on the rise in Ontario, police forces said Wednesday after announcing that a provincewide investigation led to the arrest of more than 100 people and dozens of alleged victims.
The investigation, dubbed Project Maverick, involved 27 police forces and two provincial government ministries and was launched in October as part of a provincial strategy to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation online.
OPP Det. Insp. Jordan Whitesell said more than 250 police investigations across the province led to 107 arrests involving 61 alleged victims and 428 charges laid.
"These numbers are staggering, and since the provincial strategy began 16 years ago, they have been increasing," said Whitesell.
"As a society and as a community, we rely more on the internet for a lot of our day-to-day, and so our children are online more than they were perhaps 10 years ago. And as a result, the offenders are also migrating to online platforms. That's one of the main drivers behind why we're seeing the increase."
The accused in the investigation were between 18 and 86 years of age, police said, while the alleged victims ranged in age from infancy to adulthood.
Whitesell said there are no particular hot spots in Ontario for child exploitation. Across the province, 168 search warrants were executed, resulting in the seizure of 1,032 electronic devices.
The offences include delivering and self-exploitation of young persons, sextortions and the possession, accessing and distribution of child pornography through social media, police said.
Police said 175 investigations are ongoing and more charges could be laid as a result.
"These high numbers share a story of a much larger problem," said Toronto police Det. Sgt. Vijay Shetty, speaking on behalf of the provincewide investigation.
"The exploitation of children is sadly increasing."
Whitesell said police forces have seen "huge increases" in the number of victims, arrests, charges laid, police investigations and repeat offenders related to child exploitation in recent years.
"(There's been a) 251 per cent increase, between 2010 and 2020, in arrests, a 220 per cent increase in charges, a 206 per cent increase in investigations and a 600 per cent increase in repeat offenders," said Whitesell.
Whitesell said a growing awareness of online child exploitation could be leading to a boost in the number of incidents being reported.
Toronto police said they laid 96 charges as part of Project Maverick, arresting 23 people and identifying 22 alleged victims.
Det. Sgt. Barb Adam said the force is seeing a rise in the number of young teenage boys being targeted online, as well as an increase in self-exploitation, where young people post images or videos of themselves online, in children as young as four years old.
Police advise parents and caregivers to educate older children about online exploitation while limiting younger children's access to devices and social media.
"We recommend that parents have control over the devices in one way, shape or form," Adam said.
"The children shouldn't have the devices in their bedrooms, they shouldn't have them in the washroom. There should be some sort of supervision, if possible, with the devices, and perhaps at night those devices are taken from the kids and locked up overnight."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.
Jessica Smith, The Canadian Press