LAS VEGAS – More than 400 children were found working as prostitutes in Las Vegas during a single month last year, according to a national report that calls the city a hub for child sex trafficking.
"You've got a lot of really good people trying to solve this problem in Las Vegas, but it's a big problem," said Linda Smith, president and founder of Shared Hope International.
The nonprofit, based in Vancouver, Wash., released the 165-page report Monday. It said "high-risk conditions of Las Vegas" including easy access to alcohol and drugs, 24-hour gambling, and a "hyper-sexualized entertainment industry" fueled a problem it dubs "domestic minor sex trafficking."
The study, produced with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, also finds the region possesses inadequate services to help those it calls victims of the sex trade.
Researchers compiled data in 2007 from 16 Las Vegas-area agencies including the FBI, police, Clark County Family Court, county juvenile authorities, the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth and the Salvation Army.
"Outreach workers in one organization identified over 400 prostituted children on the streets of Las Vegas in May 2007 alone," the report said. It said a group called Stop Turning Out Child Prostitutes found some 1,496 minors faced prostitution-related charges in the area since 1994.
Las Vegas was one of 10 U.S. locations for which the agency completed reports. Others included Salt Lake City, Dallas, Bexar County and Fort Worth, Texas, the New Orleans area, Clearwater, Fla., Erie County, N.Y., Independence, Mo., and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Las Vegas police Lt. Karen Hughes said police last year arrested 157 juveniles on prostitution-related charges, and 153 the year before.
"That doesn't mean there aren't more girls out there," she said. "It's tragic."
Federal officials have recognized Las Vegas as an area where human trafficking is a concern, and a cooperative effort was launched in 2006 called the Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery. Anchored by Las Vegas police, ATLAS involves the FBI, Salvation Army, women's and family shelters and rape crisis programs, Nevada Child Seekers and the Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
But officials express frustration that after a program to provide counseling and treatment for teen prostitutes closed recently, there was no local safe house specifically for sexually trafficked children, Smith said.
Officials said they agreed with report findings that trafficked children are treated as criminals instead of victims.
"These kids don't really belong in juvenile justice but don't fit anywhere else in the system," said Family Court Judge William Voy. "They're out there being victimized but also committing a delinquent act, prostitution. There is no alternative but the detention center."
Voy, who spends one day a week hearing cases involving juveniles accused of prostitution has been working with others to open a safe house for juveniles, but plans are still in the early stages.