A yearlong study on sex trafficking in Las Vegas found the majority of victims were teenagers under the threat of violence from their perpetrators---and more than half of all underage victims were never reported missing. The results of the study have broad implications for the AMBER Alert program because law enforcement and others may never be notified for many abducted children in extreme danger.
The Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research conducted the study with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) on all sex trafficking cases in 2014. The study included 190 victims in 159 separate sex trafficking cases. The findings were presented in Las Vegas on February 13, 2017.
“Law enforcement has not let researchers in to do this type of study before,” said Domique Roe-Sepowitz, Director of ASU’s Sex Trafficking Intervention Research Office. “We saw pictures, read interviews, found strengths and ways we could do things better.”
Roe-Sepowitz and her team of researchers found two-thirds of the sex trafficking victims were minors ranging in age from 12 to 17. The average teenage victim was 16 years old. One in five victims was brought to Las Vegas from out of state, mostly from California.
THE LAS VEGAS EXPERIENCE
The Las Vegas metropolitan area has a population of two million people, yet experiences an additional transient population of 42 million visitors annually. LVMPD Captain Sasha Larkin said officers are building relationships with casinos, hotels, churches and members of the LGBT community to raise awareness of the problem, increase the capacity for businesses and individuals to assist in identifying and reporting suspected trafficking, and to better equip all involved to do their part in helping sex trafficking victims.
“We take this personal,” said Larkin. “It is our responsibility for all of us in the community to take it personal. What if we raised awareness in the community so there were never victims in the first place?”
The study found less than a quarter of victims and less than 20% of minor victims were willing to cooperate with law enforcement.
“There are those who believe what happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas,” said Kevin McMahill, LVMPD Undersheriff. “This is not the case for human traffickers. Human trafficking doesn’t stay here. It is brought here to live off the suffering of others and we have to stop it.”
McMahill noted many of the victims who were not reported missing were in the foster care system. “Those who are already disenfranchised fall through the cracks a second time and become preyed upon again.”
Nevada authorities say the study confirms that new methods must be used to investigate and ultimately prevent sex trafficking crimes, and to better respond to the needs of victims.
“We know brain chemistry changes when a person is exposed to trauma,” said Elynne Greene, LVPMD Victim Services and Trafficking Manager. “Our typical interrogation techniques do not work. We need to engage survivors, because they will teach us how to do our job.”
Finding victims and prosecuting perpetrators can also be a challenge because prostitution is legal in some Nevada counties. Greene said decriminalization would not help because the law is often the only way to provide resources to victims.
She said they are building a 24-hour response team so investigators can get help from advocates at any time they are needed. Those advocates provide safety, support and education to victims who are reluctant to get help. “The ones who are not willing to talk need the most help,” she added.
THE LURE AND THE LOCK
The study provides insight how victims are lured into sex trafficking. The findings illustrate the luring and manipulation at play.
- 31.5% of victims were recruited through romantic relationships with traffickers.
- 29% of victims were cultivated through social media.
- Victims were also approached on the street and at malls.
- 10% were kidnapped.
“This is not surprising, but it confirms what we heard in the field and we now have data to support it,” said Jim Walters, Program Manager for the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program. “The child is relying on the trafficker for basic needs. When a young person sees this route as a way to improve their situation, then it becomes dangerous.”
The study found a “Romeo pimp” often identifies himself as a husband or a boyfriend and promises the victim a better future, protection and the finer things of life. The “Guerilla pimp” uses violence and terror to control the victim.
Sex traffickers used different types of violence to keep victims from leaving or making a report to law enforcement. The traffickers used 1 or more of the following: physical violence (56.2%), psychological violence (49.4%) and sexual violence (11.2%). A weapon was used in 13.8% of the cases.
The accounts of the brute violence suffered by sex trafficking victims are staggering; law enforcement, victim service providers with whom they work, and members of the larger Las Vegas community must increase awareness and understanding of the incredibly destabilizing impact such violence has on victims. A sex trafficking survivor at the presentation emphasized more studies need to be done to better understand and reckon with the violence caused by customers. “The closest I came to death was at the hands of a customer,” she said.
Wesley Duncan, First Assistant Attorney General of Nevada, referenced a quote from William Wilberforce when he spoke with the English House of Commons in 1789 about the slave trade: “Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know.”
Duncan said more than two centuries later we are still fighting slavery and we still have a duty to warn others. “This is not a third world problem, it is a first world problem,” said Duncan. “This is going on in the streets, the bars and the shopping malls. We need to break up this evil and abolish human trafficking in our lifetime.” Cindy McCain, Chair to break up this evil and abolish human trafficking in our lifetime.” Cindy McCain, Chair of the McCain Institute at ASU’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council, emphasized that public education must be part of the solution. “We need to make human trafficking and slavery part of everyday conversation. The same way we now talk about breast cancer or politics.”
McCain noted efforts underway to stop publications like Backpage from advertising sex trafficking victims and robustly promoting their exploitation. She explained the ride sharing company Uber has joined in the effort to promote awareness and identification with its drivers, citing the recent bravery and commitment of a driver who acted to identify and help rescue a young sex trafficking victim who was a rider in his vehicle. “If we think we are ahead of this, the sex traffickers are still miles ahead,” said McCain. “I have called sex trafficking victims disposable children because they vaporize.”
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) Case Analysis Director Angela Aufmuth said the Las Vegas study corroborates what the Center is seeing on a national scale. “What we see repeatedly is that there are many kids being picked up in sex trafficking stings who were never reported missing,” said Aufmuth. “If you have a kid running away over and over again. Instead of thinking they are bad kids, we need to find out what are they running from and what are they running to.”
A CALL TO ACTION
The study clarifies challenges for those involved with AMBER Alert programs due to under- and non-reporting of trafficking victims; namely that trafficked children are often not reported missing, most victims are not willing to let anyone know they are in danger, and if located, most will not cooperate with law enforcement due to the manipulation and coercive control of their traffickers. Researchers found law enforcement agencies are often limited in investigating numerous, highly complex cases. Authorities also struggle to help victims from continued physical violence and psychological or “invisible violence.” Finally, prosecutors find sex trafficking cases are much more difficult to solve and win.
These findings underpin clear recommendations for forming authentic and genuine relationships with victims in order to develop trust and provide safety for them and accountability for the perpetrators. To support this transformation, researchers suggest law enforcement agencies work closely with state Missing Person Clearinghouses and domestic violence and victim service providers to help identify missing children. A victim advocate is needed for all vice or human trafficking investigations units. Additionally, a full-time cyber-investigator should be used to help monitor sex trafficking activity taking place online and through social media.
Finally, researchers say more education is needed for law enforcement, the media and the public. “We need to hold sex traffickers accountable,” concluded LVMPD Undersheriff Kevin McMahill. “We need to keep spreading the message that this is not a victimless crime and will not be tolerated in our community.”