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Off track

Illustration by Yann Legendre

The fight against juvenile sex trafficking is ignored, stigmatized and underfunded, but a small army of victim advocates is determined to change that

Around 10 years ago, Lena Walther got a startling call from a frightened young woman begging to be rescued. She’d had a baby with a man who was holding her captive and pimping her out. The young woman was a citizen of Sweden, which is why she called Walther, Nevada’s Swedish consul.

Walther recalls her response: “I’m not coming to get you, because we’ll all get killed. You grab that baby and get out of there. Call 911. The police will go get you and take you to a shelter, and I’ll get you from there.”

It took a couple weeks, but that’s how it went down. Swedish passports in hand, Walther went to the Shade Tree women’s shelter to pick up the new mother, who’d apparently been drugged and physically abused. She’d been under the pimp’s control for a year and a half.

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Artful savior: Lena Walther of Awareness Is Prevention.  Photo by Aaron Mayes

“I got the baby a temporary passport, because there was no father’s name on the birth certificate,” Walther says. “She thought the hospital had done it on purpose because she’d been in there so many times, beaten up. Within a week, they were gone. Safe.”

Walter is a petite blonde who sports tailored dresses and glossy nails. She speaks in the commanding tones of a European ballet mistress, arching her voice incredulously when she says: “That young woman was a civil engineer who’d come here as a tourist!”

After a second, similar call a couple years later, Walther started poking around. She went to Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force meetings. She learned that sex trafficking was not just a problem for foreigners like those who’d contacted her, but also for countless U.S. citizens and permanent residents, many — unthinkable to her at the time — children.

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Walther dug more. To her horror, she found out that a couple hundred sexually exploited minors a year pass through Southern Nevada’s criminal system, some jailed, others sent to shelters with inadequate security, most ending up runaways, back in the hands of their pimps, walking “the track,” as it’s called. She felt she had to do something about it. She tried to help a friend who was working toward forensic specialist licensure start a clinic for girls, but the friend’s certification fell through, and so did the project.

“What I really wanted to do was bring awareness to kids before they end up in a trafficking circle,” Walther says. “Because once they’re there, they’ll never be normal again.”

In 2014, Walther founded her own nonprofit, Awareness Is Prevention, a name that came from a UNLV student who’d heard her speak and said, “Until there’s awareness, it will never stop.” By then several years into her involvement in the world of adolescent sex trafficking, Walther knew it was filled with diverse characters — churches, cops, lawyers, social workers — scrapping over scarce resources to solve a problem that most community members don’t want to think about, much less solve. But that didn’t deter her.

Awareness Is Prevention is soliciting entries into an art contest designed to teach youngsters how to recognize someone who’s grooming them for sex work and get out of the situation before it’s too late. Volunteers are spreading the word about the contest through community centers and youth groups, because most schools won’t address such a sensitive subject, Walther says. She hopes for at least 50 participants in the contest’s first run, and that it will catch on and grow in the future.

The social stigma is only one of many obstacles daunting those who battle juvenile sex trafficking. Moreover, their wins — such as getting a safe-harbor law passed in the 2015 state legislative session — are few and far between. What keeps them going against such dismal odds?

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 “Once you’ve seen this, it’s impossible to walk away from,” Walther says.

 ‘Just prostitutes’Ask people who fight the sex trafficking of minors if it’s a serious problem in Las Vegas, and they’ll unequivocally say yes. Ask them to prove it, and they falter.

“It’s an illegal activity, so it’s hard to track anywhere,” says Alexis Kennedy, a UNLV criminal justice professor whose research focuses on legal issues related to child abuse and exploitation, including sex trafficking.

In 2007, Kennedy assessed domestic minor sex trafficking (meaning the commercial sexual exploitation of residents under 18) in Las Vegas, surveying existing data and interviewing 25 people from 16 agencies who regularly interact with victims. Her work was part of a federally funded study of 10 metropolitan hotspots, including Las Vegas, coordinated by nonprofit Shared Hope International.

In her report, Kennedy said that outreach workers from one organization had identified 400 prostituted children on the streets of Las Vegas in one month, May 2007, alone. Another source found that nearly 1,500 minors had been adjudicated for prostitution-related charges between 1994 and 2007.

“Every year, I analyze Judge (William) Voy’s calendar,” Kennedy says today, referring to the Clark County juvenile court judge. “There is no other specialty juvenile court in the U.S. that has as big a (minor sex trafficking) caseload as ours. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.”

In other words, there are many other cases that go unnoticed. On its website, national anti-human trafficking nonprofit Polaris gives this disclaimer: “There is no official estimate of the total number of victims in the U.S.,” adding that it’s probably in the “hundreds of thousands.” Polaris bases its estimate partly on calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Since 2007, 1,247 calls have referenced Nevada; so far this year there have been 105 calls, resulting in 77 human trafficking cases. All but nine involve either sex, sex and labor or an unspecified type of trafficking (the remainder are pure labor cases). A third of those trafficked are minors; nine out of 10 are female or other gender minorities. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has identified 110 sex trafficking victims so far this year among the minors it has picked up for various offenses.

This isn’t news to advocates like Kennedy and Walther. So, why isn’t it part of the public conversation?

Kennedy says it’s been difficult to get corporate sponsorship for events related to such a depressing issue in a city that runs on tourism and hospitality.

Some experts attribute the lack of awareness to local mores. “Las Vegas maintains a hypersexualized culture, where sexuality is sold at multiple levels, from strip clubs to topless pools — all of which are advertised publicly,” wrote a team of UNLV researchers who released the results of their comprehensive youth sex trade study in March. “Thus, the commodification of sex and sexuality is ever-present in the resident community.”

Others say a dearth of prevention and recovery resources for adolescent victims is just one example of the community’s greater failure to invest in its children. Kennedy gives the example of accredited centers for assisting abused children who’ve been removed from their homes, noting that Nevada has only two, while New Mexico — a state with 700,000 fewer residents — has nine.

And anti-sex trafficking programs for minors suffer from a particular prejudice: Teenage girls who walk the streets are seen as criminals rather than the victims they truly are, according to Metro
Lieutenant Patricia Spencer, who commands the department’s vice and sex trafficking section and heads the local task force of the FBI’s Innocence Lost initiative.

Street fighter: Metro Lieutenant Patricia Spencer. Photo by Aaron Mayes

“Once you understand the crime — the whole game and the life it entails — you don’t want to lock them up,” Spencer says. “They’re brainwashed and traumatized and have no idea what they’re doing.”

She describes a typical case: A charming man flirts with a vulnerable girl he meets in public, gets her phone number and then privately begins grooming her with flattery, expensive dates and lavish gifts. He isolates her from friends and family. Once she’s hooked on his affection and generosity, he explains that it’s time she returns the favor by working for him. For a while, the girl still believes the pimp is her boyfriend, which makes her easier to manipulate. The physical violence doesn’t come until later, when she resists doing what he tells her.

Information like this is included in a special sex trafficking curriculum for police officers, Spencer says. “For a few years, they took it out of the academy, and we fought to get it put back in last year. … The problem is, most people look at it as a prostitution issue. How do you explain that they’re victims when people look at them as a blight on society: ‘What do you mean? They’re just prostitutes.’”


Give ’em shelterThe police academy curriculum Spencer mentions is an example of a national trend that aims to prevent juvenile sex trafficking by educating people who are likely to come into contact with victims. In July, NPR reported on Truckers Against Trafficking, highlighting the story of a professional driver who rescued a young woman from six years of sexual slavery when he noticed suspicious activity in a truck stop parking lot and called police. TAT educates truck drivers about what to look for and distributes stickers, wallet cards and posters with a hotline number to call if they see something suspicious.

Health-care professionals are ideal front-line soldiers in the fight for prevention, Laura Culley says. As associate dean of health policy and community affairs for the UNLV School of Medicine, Culley is not only making sure that trafficking victim identification and assistance run through the new medical school’s curriculum, but is also creating a training course for other health workers and developing a protocol for connecting people who want help with community resources.

“We’re hoping to create a model that other cities can use,” she says.

Security guards in hotel-casinos are also well-placed to intervene, Spencer says, and now have an example to follow. After a couple sex traffic escapees ran to Aria security for help last year, the hotel decided it had a problem to address. For six months, it’s had a training program to teach security personnel how to identify and assist victims.

 “They have posters with the hotline number throughout the security office,” Spencer says. “The staff asks anybody they take into custody if they need help or are being forced to do what they’re doing.”

With the ship slowly turning toward prevention, the next step is protection, according to best practices outlined by the federal government. Here, too, experts agree, Southern Nevada is failing. Safe harbor laws, such as the one that passed in Nevada last year, are meant to divert minors who get busted for prostitution and related crimes from the criminal justice system to social assistance. The problem is that Las Vegas lacks somewhere secure to send victims to. There are nonprofit facilities that take in young people and offer them health and human services; WestCare is a well-known example. But the problem is, they’re not fortresses.

“The juveniles are trained,” Spencer says. “The pimp tells them, ‘If you get picked up by the police, I’ll get you out. If you go to WestCare, then leave as soon as you can, and I’ll pick you up.’ … They’re trained to run, and they almost always do. That’s why we have to send them to juvenile hall, because we have no lock-down facility.”

Esther Brown, who runs local nonprofit The Embracing Project, says that detention is not ideal, but it’s often the best-case-scenario in the current environment because it keeps victims separated from their pimps long enough that they start to become receptive to help. The Embracing Project is allowed to stand with public defenders to advocate for victims before Voy, and Brown works with probation officers and community partners so that when kids are discharged they can go someplace where she can keep tabs on them.

“A big problem we have is continuity between Las Vegas and other jurisdictions,” she says. “If a girl is being sent back to California or wherever, sometimes there’s no connection to services in those parts of the country. Without that, they can end up being killed.”

The game’s high stakes make perhaps the most compelling argument for people to care, and for things to change.

“Trafficking the last few years has surpassed drugs and arms as the most profitable (illicit) trade in the world,” Walther says. “One girl can bring a pimp a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, and remember: That’s tax-free money. They’ll do anything to keep that kind of income. It’s a nightmare.”

Spencer adds that a pimp who’s willing to brutally beat his main source of income is an even more violent menace to anyone standing between her and him, from social workers to babies. This is organized crime, she says, with a hierarchy, rules and other illegal activities to support operations.

“Pimps are by definition psychopaths, so I have thousands of psychopaths on my beat running around terrorizing the city,” Spencer says. “The more we arrest, the more rewarding it is. One pimp is responsible for between three and eight girls, so for every one guy we get, we’ve released that many girls from their nightmare.”

Making sure they wake up to something better has to be the community’s next priority. 


Wish list

Desert Companion asked: If there were funding for the fight against sex trafficking, what would you use it for?

To prosecute johns, which has helped to reduce sex trafficking of minors in Sweden. (Lena Walther, Awareness Is Prevention)

To get the community talking — not about just this, but also related issues, such as child abuse. (Alexis Kennedy, UNLV)

More studies, better quantification of the problem. (Kennedy)

To generate more support from the school district, so teachers and administrators don’t have to organize presentations on their own. (Patricia Spencer, Metro)

Bigger, more impactful awareness campaigns, such as the three-story-high ads reading, “Have sex with children, go to jail” displayed on the sides of buildings in other countries. (Esther Brown, The Embracing Project)

More professionals working on all aspects of the problem. (All sources)

A safe house. (All sources)

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and KNPR's State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022. In 2024, Interim CEO Favian Perez promoted Heidi to managing editor, charged with integrating the Desert Companion and State of Nevada newsroom operations.