Las Vegas Sun

December 14, 2018

Currently: 41° — Complete forecast

Combating underage sex trafficking in Las Vegas

Human trafficking

Zach Meyer / Special to Las Vegas Weekly

Editor’s note: Names and details that could reveal the subject’s identity were changed or removed from this story for safety reasons.

From far-flung nations to nearby towns, human trafficking materializes in every corner of the globe. It casts a wide shadow that includes labor and sex trafficking. It spans all ages and crosses all borders, and Las Vegas is not exempt from its grasp. Now 18, Jasmine was sex trafficked when she was 13. Her story is not unique; it is not isolated; it happens on Las Vegas’ streets and in its hotels and homes when the sun sets and the neon lights flicker on.

• • •

Jasmine’s gaze never faltered. Not when she described her uncle raping her, or the cages in the basement of a suburban Las Vegas house where he and her father kept the girls they trafficked.

She was 13 at the time and spent her childhood bouncing between her biological family and foster homes in California before moving to Las Vegas to live with her father.

Jasmine (an alias she chose) shared her story to highlight the fact that sex trafficking in the Valley lives beyond Boulder Highway. She was forced into the sex trade, and the illicit operation her family operated was hidden in a typical neighborhood.

Trafficking vs. prostitution

Trafficking involves unwilling or coerced participants; prostitution involves individuals who have entered the lifestyle by choice. Nevada has both legal and illegal prostitution, but soliciting sex is illegal in Las Vegas’ jurisdiction.

The unique vulnerabilities of foster youths—their need for familial bonds, their transiency and frequent history of being abused and neglected—make them prime targets for traffickers.

Nationally, 86 percent of child sex trafficking victims were under the care of social services when they went missing, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

And most were not reported as runaways, said Elynne Greene, manager of Metro Police’s Victims Services and Human Trafficking section.

Last February, Greene participated in a panel discussion hosted by the McCain Institute for International Leadership, revealing data from a groundbreaking research project done in collaboration with Arizona State University.

“They found an unexpected degree of violence in sex trafficking cases, which mostly involved underage victims. ASU researchers and detectives from the Vice & Sex Trafficking Investigation Section found that one in five underage victims were brought to Las Vegas for the purpose of sex trafficking and that more than half of the child sex trafficking victims had not been reported missing. Traffickers used social media to recruit victims and then used websites like Backpage.com to traffic them,” read a description on the institute’s website.

When a family breaks down, children are more vulnerable to a trafficker’s lies and temptations, and biological and foster families become less likely to report them as missing.

“When they disappear, I imagine some foster parents are almost grateful that they get a break from the acting out and behaviors that go along with adolescence and troubled kids that could have been in multiple foster care placements before they got there. So they’re not being reported missing,” Greene said.

HOW MANY VICTIMS ARE THERE?

What is CSEC?

Children who are kidnapped, coerced, forced, under the age of 18 or manipulated into the sex trade for economic gain are considered part of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) population.

The Clark County Department of Family Services (DFS) does not have complete data, but a representative said the department, in partnership with Metro, started keeping track last year.

They’re also monitoring the relationship between social services and underage trafficking, and training caseworkers to recognize the signs of sex trafficking, said Dan Kulin, public relations officer for Clark County.

Metro trained 400 social workers on the signs of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), and all children under DFS’s care are screened for risk factors or evidence of having been in the life.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Greene said. “Training DFS workers is a start—getting into the foster care system, getting into the school systems.”

DFS already has identified about 50 potential cases of commercial sex trafficking in the foster care system.

“We are continuing to work in collaboration with law enforcement, prosecutors and victim advocates to help create a coordinated response to all of these investigations and better serve these kids going forward,” said Paula Hammack, acting director of DFS.

HIGH-RISK FOSTER YOUTH

Fight against trafficking

DFS has several representatives on the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children’s Coalition, formed in May 2016. That unit consists of a supervisor, two therapists and two forensic interviewers, housed within the Southern Nevada Children’s Advocacy Center. It builds a relationship with the youths whom DFS identifies, then helps connect them to the appropriate services they need, including health care, housing and education.

2016 by the numbers

Victims identified by Metro in 2016 included:

• 138 females and 2 males under age 18, 24% of whom were 14 or younger

• 119 females and 2 males 18 and older, 58 percent of whom were 23 or younger

Jasmine’s story mirrors the lives of many foster youths—bouncing between foster care and family and from school to school; separated from siblings, enveloped in instability and the feeling of being thrown away.

“I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and then I moved to Oakland when I was about 1 year old to live with my mom, my dad and my granny,” Jasmine said. “When I turned 2, my mom left, and I had a little brother who was 6 months old.”

Jasmine’s father left when she was 4, and her grandmother died shortly after. She and her brother entered California’s foster care system, where they stayed for more than a year before their father resurfaced in Las Vegas. They moved back in with him, but were taken away when he started using drugs and alcohol and became abusive.

“I was 10 or 11 when my dad finally started fighting for custody of me, but he couldn’t get my brother because he was already adopted. They couldn’t change that,” she said. “So, my dad got custody of me.”

The visits to her uncle’s house started off innocently—hanging out and playing cards. “It turned into me spending the night, and then it turned into my uncle raping me.”

There were three or four other girls held in the house, she said, but they were forbidden to talk to each other. They couldn’t share their names, ages or stories, and if they did, they were punished with physical violence.

“After that, it was abuse. It triggered me: Well, if I don’t do what they say then they’re going to hurt me,” she said. “Men used to cycle through the house all the time. They used to play cards or go upstairs with us.”

For many of the CSEC population, survival depends on their abuser. These youths are unaware of social programs and services that could help improve their lives, Arash Ghafoori, CEO and executive director of Nevada Partnership of Homeless Youth (NPHY), said at the launch of a collaborative mentoring program called POWER ON!

“There are so many hooks in these girls,” Greene said. “Eventually, they align with that person, because that’s their survival. They’re dependent on that person for their food and water.”

The girls don’t leave, sometimes out of fear for their lives, sometimes out of love, sometimes because they have nowhere else to go. When they do leave, building a case against the trafficker becomes increasingly difficult. Often the trafficker pleads guilty to a lesser crime, the girl doesn’t want to testify, or there’s not enough evidence to prosecute.

“It’s not one monster in the closet; it’s everywhere,” Greene said of the nature of the trafficking problem in Las Vegas. “I see the survivors. I see the incredible drive to survive and create a life. That’s the light in the darkness.”

A TURNING POINT

Did you know?

An average of 11.6 children a month were identified as victims of sex trafficking in 2016.

One man who solicited Jasmine for sex hesitated and asked her age. Jasmine said he realized she was too young and dropped her off at Child Haven when she was 14. She turned 18 in May as part of Clark County’s foster care system.

“They only could find four of the people who came and paid and had sex with me, and he wasn’t one of them,” Jasmine said. “And I hope they don’t find him, because he was the one who saved me from it. He didn’t do anything to me. If it wasn’t for him, I’d still be in the situation I was in.”

She has cycled through foster homes and gotten into fights with other kids—one led to her wearing an ankle monitor.

Last year, she was pregnant at Child Haven. Two months into her pregnancy, she miscarried.

At the start of 2017, Jasmine found a home at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children. The ranch helped her enroll in a new school and encouraged her to attend after-school programs and therapy to help her understand her past.

The ranch also helped arrange visits with her siblings—her brother and a half-sister discovered by her caseworker.

“We have a whole lot of house parents on the ranch that really do care, and they’re not just doing it for the money,” Jasmine said. “If you want a good home, St. Jude’s is where you should be.”

Jasmine graduated from high school last spring, despite it being the ninth school she attended that year.

“Your past doesn’t determine your future,” Jasmine said. “I never had that one person there to say, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ I always had to go through it alone.

“I’m just getting my story out there. It doesn’t have to be millions of girls. If I help just one girl be like, ‘If she can do it, I can too,’ I would love that.”

A YEAR LATER

Last fall, Jasmine was set up to live at a local nonprofit for youth who turn 18 and age out of foster care. She later moved to Sacramento, California, to live with her grandmother, and began studying psychology so she can counsel teens with substance abuse problems.

Her case against her father and uncle is ongoing—their trials are scheduled for March and May, respectively.

She’s nervous about seeing her father in the courtroom. The other girls didn’t want to testify; she will be alone.

“It’s been a couple years since I’ve been face to face with my dad,” she said.

“I have other people I’m doing this for besides me, and I feel if I stand up, that’s one less pedophile on the street, one less person trying to coerce your children, one less person trying to traffic your kid.”

HOW TO RECOGNIZE THOSE WHO MIGHT BE VULNERABLE

Reaching populations at risk

Countries experiencing political turmoil and neighboring nations become targets for human trafficking as instability causes holes in social safety nets and dangerous environments encourage people fleeing to take risks.

Last September, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the FBI partnered with Clear Channel Outdoor to produce 10 billboards aimed at bringing awareness to human trafficking in Las Vegas. The billboards are in three languages: Spanish, English and Chinese, targeting ethnicities the organizations believe are most at risk.

Resources for victims

• National Human Trafficking Hotline: Call 1-888-373-7888, text BEFREE to 233733, email [email protected] or visit hotline.org

• NPHY Safe Place: There are more than 100 Safe Places for youths in crisis across the Las Vegas Valley, including 83 Terrible Herbst and 20 Las Vegas fire stations. Within 30 minutes of a youth arriving at an NPHY Safe Place, a NPHY mobile crisis responder will pick up the youth, address his or her situation and ensure his or her safety.

• Metro’s Vice Unit: Call 702-828-3455

There were 2,794 minors recovered from human sex trafficking by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department from 1994 through 2016, according to the 2017 State of Youth Homelessness in Southern Nevada Research Brief from UNLV’s Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.

In 2016, Metro documented about 140 child sex trafficking victims—roughly a dozen per month. The majority (76 percent) were black. Several studies tie the over-representation of young black girls in Child Protective Services to them being trafficked at a higher rate than other races. Last year, 11.2 percent of youths in Clark County were black, representing an outsized 31.6 percent of all in foster care.

Greene said Metro has not finalized numbers for 2017, but they are not going down.

Those most vulnerable are children 13 and younger who are female; have been abused; have been exposed to family instability and dislocation; live in poverty; have run away or are homeless. One in three teens on the street will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home, according to the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY).

On the local level, Lenore Jean-Baptiste, the POWER ON! project coordinator at NPHY, said that, based on Nevada having the highest rate of unsheltered homeless youths, she anticipates the number of teens lured into prostitution being much higher.

Youths fleeing abusive or volatile homes or foster care placements often end up homeless and are quickly lured into illicit activities.

The warning signs include a combination of the following: youths who have trouble sleeping during the night because of their soliciting, youths who run away from Friday to Sunday without any clear explanation of their whereabouts, a tattoo that may be used as branding, promiscuous dressing or dressing in expensive clothing, a change in attitude and language, referring to a boyfriend as ‘daddy’ and dating older men.

Other warning signs include: tattoos, usually of a pimp’s name, dollar signs, the word b*tch, or daddy; looking malnourished or tired despite having short shifts or working part-time; cigarette burns, bruises on arms; blistered feet from walking in high heels for long hours; missing school or work; time in juvenile detention for shoplifting

FIXING THE SYSTEM

Because of the nature of human trafficking, data on the local, national and international levels is incomplete at best. However, reliable data collection on those levels is crucial for developing and enforcing anti-human trafficking policies, according to the 2016 Trafficking in Person Report by the U.S. government.

1. Identifying at-risk youths: Emily Salisbury, an associate professor of Criminal Justice at UNLV, designed an identification and diversion program for commercially sexually exploited youths entering the juvenile justice system. “Oftentimes they come in on masked charges, things that don’t look like it’s going to be about trafficking, but these youths are,” Salisbury said. “Sometimes, girls would come in on theft charges or shoplifting or some kind of charge that certainly doesn’t appear to be initially what somebody would call prostitution, even though a girl underage can’t technically be a prostitute because she can’t consent.”

2. More early intervention social services: Early intervention programs that help youth who may be at-risk and parents of youth who are at-risk. “More family services certainly are needed. We’re ground zero for almost every social issue, whether it’s mental health, foster care,” Salisbury said. “It’s unfortunate that Las Vegas hasn’t quite wrapped its arms around its own community in that sense.”

3. A multilayered approach: Vulnerable youths cross into multiple public and social services. Fostering collaboration between schools, nonprofits and the Department of Family Services, and placing those at risk in programs tailored to their needs, is essential.

4. Paying attention: “People don’t realize how many kids are out there being exploited and being trafficked in a way that is so harmful to our community, and just by caring about the issue and being aware of it is putting people in the right direction,” Salisbury said.

5. Become a mentor: POWER ON!, a collaborative project that launched in January, is looking for mentors for at-risk youth and victims. The program is a joint effort between NPHY; Big Brothers Big Sisters; the Embracing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping sex trafficking victims in the Valley; and the Gay and Lesbian Center of Southern Nevada. The program requires a one-year commitment. For those looking to get involved, a POWER ON! training session will be held February 28 from 5-7 p.m. at the NPHY drop-in center (4981 Shirley St.). RSVP at [email protected].

Human tracking across the U.S. in 2015

(includes labor and sex trafficking of all ages)

There is no formal way to track human trafficking prosecutions at state and local levels, according to a 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report. Since 2013, the federal government has collected data on human trafficking on the state and local levels through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, but not all states and jurisdictions participate. The most recent data from the participating jurisdictions—including 38 states and Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico—was released in 2015. Across all the jurisdictions, there were 387 reported human trafficking offenses that resulted in an arrest or a solved case for crime reporting purposes, an increase of 120 from 2014, mostly because of more participation by states and U.S. territories.

Human trafficking-related phone calls

The National Human Trafficking Hotline released a survey ranking the most populous cities in terms of hotline calls by aggregating their data from 2007 to 2016. The report was released last fall. Las Vegas ranked in the top 10 for both the total amount of calls made to the hotline and calls per capita.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.