Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2017

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Summit attendees vow to sustain fight against sex-trafficking industry

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Authorities say the force driving the sex-trafficking industry, one that’s flourishing in Las Vegas and around the world, comes down to simple economics: supply and demand.

“It’s like a drive-thru,” said Metro Police Lt. Karen Hughes, who oversees the department’s vice section. “It’s sad to see, but it happens.”

Hughes was one of numerous speakers at a sex-trafficking summit Wednesday organized by Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. More than 200 people, including lawmakers, law enforcers and faith leaders, attended the six-hour event meant to galvanize support for proposed legislation and foster more collaboration to fight sex-trafficking.

The word “victim” echoed frequently in the UNLV auditorium, site of the summit, as authorities sought to differentiate between society’s image of prostitutes and the reality of girls and young women lured into the sex trade by often abusive, manipulative pimps.

“The victims that are under the age of 18 are victims — period,” Hughes said.

Bradley Myles, executive director of the Polaris Project, a global organization fighting human trafficking, said sex trafficking covers two categories of people: children and teens younger than 18 swept into the sex trade, and adults who were coerced or forced into the industry.

The trafficking of these people can occur in a variety of ways, such as through Hispanic brothels, Asian massage parlors, gang activities or familial relationships, meaning when a parent or spouse “turns out” a child or loved one to earn money, Myles said.

The largest category of sex trafficking — representing more than 50 percent of calls to a national hotline — is “domestic pimp control,” a situation where a pimp controls one female or multiple females and plies them in the sex trade, Myles said.

“Pimps are pretty adaptable guys,” he said. “They’re going wherever people are buying sex.”

To find child victims, Hughes said Las Vegas officers scour the city’s streets, motels and hotels, as well as the Internet. Last year, Metro’s vice section “recovered” 107 juveniles, including three boys, from the sex trade, and 61 percent of those victims were from Nevada, she said.

“I know it’s controversial to say we arrest these girls, but right now there’s no other way,” Hughes said.

That scenario has authorities — police and court officials included — leading the charge to secure funding for a long talked-about safe house for juvenile victims, many of whom run away after release from the juvenile detention center, putting their safety at risk and jeopardizing cases against their pimps.

Clark County Public Defender Philip Kohn said the constant lack of funding for a safe home infuriated him because increasing penalizing pimps was not the lone solution.

“A lot of these kids can’t go home,” Kohn said. “Home is not a safe place. We have to have safe havens for them.”

Family Court Judge William Voy, who has been leading the movement to find funding and build such a place since 2006, echoed Kohn’s sentiments and strongly urged summit attendees to make it a priority.

“Today, we still don’t have a safe house,” he said. “Quite frankly, we’re at this point where I’m a little tired. Build me a safe house.”

Fellow panelist Gard Jameson, treasurer of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, assured attendees the nonprofit would help secure funding for a safe house this year. He said a funding solution would be both long-term and sustainable, eliciting a round of applause from the audience.

During the summit, Hughes also announced that Lou Pascoe, a longtime Metro officer who served as a deputy chief before retiring, has been appointed director of the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force.

Her role, a new position created by a federal grant awarded to Metro and the Salvation Army, will be to focus on creating a greater public awareness about human trafficking, particularly the sex trafficking of children.

“Whenever you have a passionate issue such as this … sometimes it take a while to get the momentum going,” Pascoe said. “My role is to bring the partners together because it must be a collaborative effort.”

In the process, Pascoe said she hoped to erase the “myth that this is a victimless crime.”

“What we’re talking about here is someone being denied the right to live out their life of their own free will,” she said. “Whenever you’re forced or coerced or intimidated to do something, you’re being trafficked. It’s as simple as that.”

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