Why Las Vegas Is Locking Up Child Trafficking Victims

If there was an award for “Child Trafficking Capital of the U.S.,” Las Vegas would probably win it. Sin City attracts runaway teens, pimps, and johns looking for sex with children at incredibly high rates. But what happens to these swarms of kids under 18 when they are caught in prostitution? They have technically broken local laws against prostitution, but the federal anti-trafficking law declares them victims. Sadly, they usually end up in juvenile detention, an option no one — including the people who put them there — likes.

I recently worked on a trafficking case of a girl we’ll call “Kelly.” Kelly was recruited by a pimp when she was 12 in Arizona. He brought her and two other girls to Las Vegas and began forcing them to sell sex on the street and bring home no less than $800 per night. One night, Kelly was caught and arrested. The fake ID her pimp gave her said she was 18, but the arresting officer knew she looked much younger. He let her off with a warning, and with no other place to go, she returned to her pimp. Several months later, Kelly was arrested again. This time, police ran the ID and proved it was fake. However, since Kelly’s pimp had threatened to kill her if she didn’t lie to the police, she refused to admit her real age. Kelly was released to a youth shelter and ran away from it a few hours later. The following year, Kelly was arrested a third time. This time a victim advocate finally got Kelly to admit that she was 15, and that she gave the money she made selling sex to her “boyfriend.” She agreed to testify against him in court.

What should happen to Kelly between now and when her pimp stands trial? She needs someplace to live where her pimp can’t get to her. But she also needs to be in a place where she can’t fall back into the extreme psychological control that her pimp had over her and run back to him. And she also needs to be in a place where he can get counseling and medical care and help dealing with the mental and physical trauma of being raped several times a night for three years. But that place doesn’t exist in Las Vegas, or really anywhere else in a country. Juvenile detention facilities, which at least accomplish keeping Kelly and her pimp apart, have become the substitute.

But sentencing a trafficking victim to prison doesn’t only violate a sense of justice, it can do real harm to the girls. They are labeled as criminals and locked up behind bars — not exactly a healing experience for girls overcoming being enslaved. They don’t have access to counseling. They may be persuaded by other girls to continue in prostitution, to use drugs, or to engage in other criminal activities. The list of reasons why sending victim to jail is a bad idea is long, and not especially novel. But the fact remains that police in Las Vegas, and in other parts of the country, feel their hands are tied.

Some people in Las Vegas, including one judge, are currently working to build a safehouse that would take the place of prison in Kelly’s story. They’ve raised the money to build a secure facility outside of Las Vegas (meaning no pimps get in and no kids get out), and are close to breaking ground. However, they still need to raise the money to pay staff for the house, including probation officers to make sure the girls don’t run. But if they can make it happen, then the trafficked children of Las Vegas will have someplace to go other than jail.

Photo credit: Janine

source: http://humantrafficking.change.org/blog/view/why_las_vegas_is_locking_up_child_trafficking_victims

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