Las Vegas Sun

December 11, 2023

Teen prostitution scourge grows

The girls, none older than 17 and some as young as 12, trudge into Judge William Voy's courtroom every Wednesday morning with the most heartbreaking and seemingly intractable problems imaginable.

Last Wednesday, one 15-year-old came into court pregnant. Another teen, a recovering alcoholic, had just gotten out of drug rehab. Almost every girl there had suffered through physical and sexual abuse at some point in her life.

Las Vegans may not want to acknowledge that a dark side has come with the city's long-standing, de facto acceptance of adult prostitution.

But the ranks of teen prostitutes are growing here, and in Voy's court - one of the few of its kind in the country designed specifically to deal with these cases - the judge, prosecutors, public defenders, police, probation officers and social workers have come together to try to address the problem.

In short, they're looking to treat the girls as victims in serious need of help, instead of juvenile delinquents who deserve punishment.

"It finally dawned on me that these girls are victims, and we've all agreed on that," said Voy, a Family Court judge. "We knew we wanted to get them special attention."

Voy formed the court in August 2005 with guidance from officials in the Clark County Juvenile Justice Services Department. Since then, 180 girls and one boy have come through, accused of various vice-related crimes including solicitation, loitering for prostitution or being a minor in a gaming establishment.

According to statistics provided by Voy's office, almost two-thirds of the girls - 112 out of 180 - came to Las Vegas from out of state. Half of that number came from California.

The boy and 15 of the 180 girls have reoffended after coming through Voy's court, mostly picked up on solicitation charges. Those numbers do not include probation violations or any crimes that may have been committed in other states, Voy's clerk confirmed.

Voy and others working with the court point to several ways they believe it is helping the girls. The officials are developing an expertise on the topic; Voy has gone so far as to attend special Metro Police training sessions . And to help them gain familiarity and become more comfortable, the girls see the same prosecutor in the courtroom, Mary Brown, as well as the same deputy public defender if they reoffend .

"I want to put it into these girls' minds that they can make more healthy decisions, and we're here to help them make them," said Colleen Witt, a social worker with the public defender's office.

The court is also working with providers such as WestCare, a Las Vegas nonprofit drug rehabilitation center, which has formed a girls program specifically to provide counseling and treatment for teen prostitutes.

Voy sometimes sentences the girls to attend WestCare. He also sends some of the most hardened offenders to the girls reformatory in Caliente, and ships home some who are facing warrants from outside Nevada.

Although it's too early to gauge any long-term effect Voy's court may be having on the girls, or on the broader issue of teen prostitution in the Las Vegas Valley, it is clear, police say, the phenomenon is rapidly becoming a crisis.

"Within the last five years, there's actually been an explosion in teen prostitution here," said Sgt. Gil Shannon of Metro's vice unit.

Shannon said that as recently as five years ago, police were making about 75 arrests annually on teen prostitution charges. Now, that number regularly tops 200.

As a result, Shannon said, the juvenile section with Metro's vice unit has doubled in size in the last 18 months. He said his detectives have been working closely with Voy's court, and he praised the judge's efforts to tackle the problem.

Voy, the public defender's office and others say one big component has been missing: a "safe house" or group home for the girls to stay in after their arrests but before their cases and those of their pimps - against whom they often are asked to testify - are decided.

A safe house could protect the girls, advocates say, and allow them to start receiving treatment and counseling to allow them to try to break free from their pimps' often strong emotional grips.

Now, most girls awaiting resolutions to their cases - a period that can amount to weeks or even months - stay at the county's Juvenile Detention Center, something that only "revictimizes" the girls, advocates say.

"We need to find a place outside of Juvie that's secure," Chief Deputy Public Defender Susan Roske said. "We desperately need this program."

A safe house almost was created a year ago. A home in a residential neighborhood was found and security equipment had been donated by businesses. But the plan was scuttled early by the new director of Juvenile Justice Services, Cherie Townsend, who concluded that other resources, such as WestCare, weren't being sufficiently used, and that there weren't enough girls in need of a safe house to justify funding the program.

For that matter, Townsend said, "as a taxpayer, it's a challenge to determine how much to spend" on a problem that focuses primarily on girls who are from out of state.

But that's missing the point, said Jessica Whelton Murphy, one of four deputy public defenders assigned to Voy's court. "Many of the girls may be from other jurisdictions, but they come to Las Vegas because it's Las Vegas," Murphy said. "It's become our problem."

The problems were many among the girls showing up in Voy's court over the last two weeks.

None had a tougher battle ahead of her, it seemed, than Tanya, a slight 12-year-old with a weary gaze.

(The Sun is using pseudonyms to protect the identities of the teens.)

According to Murphy, Tanya was first taken from her mom's home six years ago after evidence of neglect, physical abuse and allegations of sexual abuse. She has shuttled between her home and foster care ever since - and has been kidnapped multiple times by family members and pimps.

"She's a sad little girl," Murphy said. Each client in Voy's court "just breaks my heart, but (Tanya) is the worst I've seen."

Murphy said she hopes Tanya will soon get into a residential center for psychological evaluations and treatment. The girl has already seen a psychiatrist, who has prescribed medications for her.

Tanya was in court Wednesday for violating her release agreement; she initially had been arrested for solicitation.

Until Voy can figure out where to send her, Tanya will remain in juvenile detention - the same lockup where she sat for almost seven weeks after her arrest on the initial violation.

When Voy asked Tanya at a hearing last Wednesday whether she would behave herself, she just stared at him and slowly nodded before being led away by a bailiff.

"I think it would be a stretch to think that anyone who had been through what she's been through would not have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)," Brown, a deputy district attorney, said afterward.

Another girl who appeared before Voy that day, a 14-year-old named Brittany, was one of two friends brought in who Brown said had been working together. Drugs were involved, as were fake IDs.

The girls had been staying with their pimp at the Golden Palm Hotel on West Tropicana Avenue near Interstate 15, Brown said.

Voy noted that area seems to be becoming Las Vegas' red-light district for underage girls.

Brittany told Voy that her friend had tried to get her into prostitution and that the drugs found at the scene weren't hers.

Brittany's mother said at the hearing that "whatever you guys give her, I agree with that. (Brittany) needs a reality check. I'm asking you guys for help."

Both cried through their statements.

Her mother, who is out of work on disability and uses food stamps for staple goods, said later that she saw her daughter with a pimp a year before she was arrested, when the girl was just 13. She didn't know what to do.

The man she was arrested with must have offered her material things her mother couldn't provide, she said.

"I don't have much, you know what I mean? (Brittany) didn't like that."

The pressures of dealing with young lives so badly deformed showed Wednesday on the attorneys tasked with trying to help them.

As Brown gathered her papers after the last case, she asked no one in particular: "What the hell kind of world do we live in? That's what I want to know."

Voy had no response. He buried his head in his hands, shaking it several times before standing up and leaving the courtroom.