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November 25, 2015

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Part II: A journey:

One woman’s escape from human trafficking


Leila Navidi

Lauren, 18, with her five-month-old son at their home in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 14, 2012.

Lauren - Former Prostitute Part II

Lauren, 18, with her five-month-old son at their home in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 14, 2012. Launch slideshow »
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

In April 2011, Lauren was 17 and again in lockup. She had been charmed by a man she thought was her boyfriend but who turned out to be a violent pimp. He was the father of their unborn child.

“He had me so far gone,” she reflected.

She had been lying for months to her mom, sister and court supervisors, who all suspected the origins of her problems.

“I wanted to tell the truth, but I didn’t want to hurt him,” she said. “I knew if I told the truth, we would be finished.”

This time, after repeated arrests and abuse, something inside her told her this was it. She was finished.

“I told them the truth,” she said.

Her boyfriend, who essentially enslaved her, was convicted of “pandering,” which is the legal term for pimping.

Lauren’s story offers a window into the horrifying world of human trafficking. The Las Vegas Valley has one of the worst human trafficking problems in the nation, with three times the number of juvenile arrests as New York City, despite the fact that we have only one-fourth the population. The wink and nod attitude toward prostitution here gives the wrong impression to tourists and conventioneers that it’s legal, which in turn creates a significant market for traffickers.

Shared Hope International, a group dedicated to eradicating human trafficking and that grades states on the efficacy of their trafficking laws, gives us an “F.” The Polaris Project, which has the same mission, gives us a slightly better grade.

This being Nevada, there aren’t enough resources to help children escape.

A small community of activists, police officers, social workers and others are fighting the good fight, however, and without them, Lauren might still be enslaved.

Youth Advocate Programs, Inc., a national nonprofit group that seeks to keep children out of jail, worked closely with Lauren to help her free herself.

Her youth advocate at the time, Shawnette Roque, spent 7 1/2 hours with Lauren every week. Lauren also attended group sessions and saw a therapist.

The question we all have is why a young woman, who is obviously bright and responsible, would fall victim to this predator.

Alexis Kennedy, a UNLV criminologist and expert in human trafficking, likens it to domestic violence, though to make matters worse, Lauren was so young she wasn’t able to confront her accuser.

“They get swept off their feet, and they don’t have the emotional tools to deal with it. She believed she was in a relationship. That is how they get them,” Kennedy said.

As Lauren said, “I felt like I did something wrong to him because I told the truth, like I should be apologizing to him.”

She slowly began to see the reality, however: that he was treating her, as she put, like “a human ATM machine.”

“Even with the struggle, she became grounded and knew what she wanted to do,” Roque said. “When she set her mind on something, good or bad, she could do it. Once we got her to focus on the good, things started to go well.”

Roque said the unplanned pregnancy seemed to snap Lauren to attention.

“She’s a big time reader. So I’d take her to the library, and she’s reading pregnancy books and telling me things I’d never heard of,” Roque said.

Her son was born last fall. He looks more and more like his father all the time, Lauren said.

Lauren passed her GED and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada, winning a scholarship from Youth Advocate Programs. She lives with her mom, who is working on starting a nonprofit to help families who are surviving the ordeal of human trafficking.

Lauren’s first goal is to earn an associates degree and become a paralegal, but someday she might like to be a lawyer, maybe prosecuting human traffickers.

I asked her how she summoned the courage to talk to me.

“I don’t feel any fear,” she said.

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