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Combating underage sex trafficking in Las Vegas

Stop Child Trafficking Now
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Zach Meyer / Special to Las Vegas Weekly

Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 |

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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