But advocates say such positive outcomes are rare. Judge Egan Walker, a district judge in Reno who handles child sex-trafficking cases says he fears the number of children who return to the sex industry is high. Their pimps, however twisted, are often their only source of emotional support, and victims, especially young girls, can be reluctant to say anything negative. They also don’t have the ability to process the trauma they’ve experienced, and behave aggressively toward judges who sometimes have very little training in how to handle such cases.
Most, like Sarah, are picked up for other offenses, and identified later as trafficking victims. The children in Walker’s courtroom are disproportionately children of color. Holland says slightly less than half of the women she works with are white, a few are Latino, and most are black. Most are not on-track to graduate from high school and have few job skills, which allows pimps to stay in control. “It’s awful to say and awful to talk about,” the judge says, “but these kids are renewable resources.” Pimps move victims from city to city to create a sense of delirium and dependence, and threaten to hurt friends and family members if victims try to leave.
So curbing trafficking is a difficult prospect, complicated by the fact that local casinos and hotels gain customers from the practice. “The casinos rely on it,” Sarah says. “You don’t get in trouble on the casino floor if you’re looking good doing it.” When it comes to child victims, Nevada stands out as one of the worst states. In 2014, 87 children were arrested for prostitution, according to federal data. Nearby Arizona, with a population more than twice as large as Nevada’s, arrested just six children for similar activities.
Yet a shift in public opinion on the issue appears to be taking place. Since 2000, the United States, which has historically criminalized prostitution, including when it involves children, has passed several laws aimed at helping victims and punishing traffickers. Nearly 40 states, including Nevada, passed anti-trafficking laws between 2013 and 2014, and more than 10 states, at the Department of Justice’s urging, have passed laws preventing minors from being prosecuted for selling sex. Yet more than half of states in America continue to allow child sex-trafficking victims to be charged for selling sex, and 300,000 American children are considered at risk of sexual exploitation. Even when victims are identified, getting them the help they need involves piecing together a patchwork of agencies that can involve the foster system, schools, and nonprofits. “Unless everyone works together, there are vulnerabilities the traffickers can exploit,” Ranasinghe says.
Some states have created specialized dockets, particularly for sex-trafficking cases involving children. Nevada approved a measure last year that allows district courts to toss out prostitution convictions where the defendants are also victims of trafficking. A judge in Kansas has started wearing casual clothes instead of robes to reduce fear among victims, while another in Florida relies on therapy dogs. But penalties for purchasing sex remain relatively small in many states, and pimps are retreating from public view behind apps and websites. Seriously reducing sex trafficking would require an unprecedented coordinated effort by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entities that, right now, are often at odds with each other. Perhaps the most significant obstacle is the fact that there are no good numbers on where the problem exists in the first place.