80 people arrested in sweeping Ontario child online exploitation investigation
TORONTO -- Dozens of people are facing hundreds of charges after a massive, provincewide investigation into child sexual abuse in Ontario.
Provincial police said the months-long investigation netted 80 alleged offenders who are now facing a total of 274 charges, adding more arrests are expected.
The bulk of the charges relate to sexual assault, child pornography and exploitation, but police said several counts also concern drugs and weapons.
OPP Chief Supt. Don Bell said Thursday the investigation involved collaboration with the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency, United States Homeland Security, and 26 municipal police forces across Ontario.
He said the wide range of ages and jurisdictions involved in the probe shines a light on how pervasive and devastating the problem is.
"The most fundamental responsibility of any society is to protect our children. Every child has the right to be nurtured and to be safe," Bell told a news conference. "Every image of child pornography represents a child victim. Every trading or transmission of that image represents a revictimization of that child."
From its inception in August 2006 to March 2016, Ontario's Provincial Strategy to Protect Children from Sexual Abuse and Exploitation on the Internet has completed 32,808 investigations and laid 11,408 charges against 3,310 people, police said.
During that period, 870 child victims were identified in Ontario, and another 173 internationally, OPP said.
The 80 people charged in latest investigation range in age from 74 to a youth who cannot be named under the terms of the Youth Criminal Justice Act and span the province from Ottawa to Windsor.
Police said they identified 20 alleged victims over the course of the investigation who have been referred to community supports for help.
The child pornography probe also overlapped with incidents connected to human trafficking, allowing police to release nine minors who had been forced into the sex trade against their will.
Those children included 14, 15, and 16-year-olds, police said.
In one incident flagged by Toronto police, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly befriended by two men who lured her with the promise of lucrative work, then shuttled her to hotels around the city to perform sexual services.
Police allege the men also sexually assaulted her themselves in a vehicle. They are now facing a total of 15 charges and appear on the list of those arrested in the provincewide sweep, which involved executing 174 warrants.
The OPP indicated that the number of people charged is expected to rise, adding they had made additional arrests on Thursday and expected more in the coming days.
But Bell said tackling the problem would involve more than simply laying charges.
"We cannot arrest ourselves out of this phenomenon," he said. "Our community partners are extremely important. Our educators are extremely important. We have to create an awareness, and as parents we have to take ownership of our children."