Two teen-age girls who claim they were abducted and made to work as prostitutes in the United States have been released into Canadian custody by a U.S. judge despite fears they may not return to testify against their abductors.
The girls, aged 13 and 14, had run away from Canadian foster homes when they allegedly were sold into prostitution earlier this month.
According to the 13-year-old's testimony to police, she was living with a man in Vancouver, British Columbia, when he sold her to two Americans for just over $2,000 (U.S. funds) on Dec. 12. After being sold, she and the 14-year-old were taken across the border into Washington where they were beaten and forced into prostitution, according to FBI officials.
The plan was to eventually take the girls to work in an escort operation out of San Diego, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.
Along the way, the teens were forced to work as prostitutes, but when they arrived in Portland, Ore., on Dec. 16, one of the girls found a way to end their captivity.
That day, a man who paid for the sexual services of the 13-year-old loaned her his cellular phone for what he thought was a call to her British Columbia home. Instead, she called 911, reaching Portland police.
Adam Ingram, 20, and Kevin Woods, 18, both of Bellingham, Wash., have been charged with interstate prostitution under the so-called White Slave Traffic Act (also known as the Mann Act), a 1948 federal law that prohibits transporting minors across state lines for immoral or criminal purposes.
The two girls "are being held in a criminal detention center. But they're not criminals; they're victims," said Deborah Daoust, a spokeswoman at the Canadian consulate in Seattle.
Despite pleas from representatives of the Canadian federal government and the British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Services, U.S. authorities refused to release the girls.
Then, on Christmas Day, following a three-day, private court hearing, U.S. Magistrate Janice Stewart ordered the girls released under unspecified conditions.
"These girls have been through an extremely difficult time, and they need to be in B.C. with our supportive care," Penny Proddy, B.C. Minister of Children and Family Services said after the girls were ordered returned to Canada.
During the court hearing, Washington authorities argued the teens were chronic runaways and could not be relied on to return to testify at trial.
But Ms. Proddy offered the court what it called a "reasonable certainty" the teens would return to testify against their alleged captors.
"We can't give an absolute guarantee" that they will return, but the British Columbia government is just as interested in the men's prosecution as American authorities are, she said.
In the wake of the incident, Ms. Proddy said the province will review supervision rules at its foster homes.