RENO -- An increasing number of the young women who walk Fourth Street in Reno looking for customers - local men and visitors to the city's major events - began working as prostitutes while in their teens. They are manipulated by men who control every aspect of their lives, said Reno Police Sgt. Ron Chalmers, one of the leaders of an effort to stop sex trafficking in Northern Nevada.
Sex trafficking - the act of forcing a woman into prostitution - is on the rise in the Reno area. The exploitation happens every day in hotels, casinos and in the front seats of cars - called "car dates." Pimps use intimidation and violence to make the girls work for them and then turn over the money they make.
Some girls are branded - or tattooed - with their pimp's name, a number or with the name of their group. For many, the relationship with their pimp is the closest thing to family they've ever had. Others are forced to perform while their children are held ransom, usually at gunpoint.
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A steady increase of sex trafficking in Northern Nevada has sparked an effort by local, state and federal agencies to try to save the exploited girls and prosecute their pimps. Many of those involved with the problem see a shift in the way these cases are handled, and they hope changes in the law will help stop the victimization of the girls.
Melissa Holland, founder of Awaken Inc., a Reno-based non-profit group that supports victims of sex trafficking, said she worked with 40 exploited women in 2012 and 25 so far in 2013.
Girls as young as 11 are being exploited, said Carla Higginbotham, an assistant U.S. attorney in Reno who specializes in prosecuting juvenile sex trafficking cases. Chalmers said the average age of the girls who enter "the life" is 14.
"They can be local kids or children who are brought into Nevada from other states for the purpose of selling their bodies," said Higginbotham. "These children are either coerced or, in many instances, forced through violence or threats, to engage in this conduct."
A bill passed by the Nevada Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval in June toughened penalties for pimps and created new opportunities for the treatment of victims. The next step will be a change in the public's perception of the crime as well as the prostitute's perception of herself and her predicament, experts say.
Tiffany Short, an FBI victim-witness specialist in Reno who works as a counselor for these women, said things can begin to change for the better as the community learns the depth of this problem.
"People are acknowledging that youth and adults are being sexually exploited in our city, on our streets, in our hotels, and our community is standing up to say this is not OK, and we need to meet the needs of the exploited and prevent this from happening," she said.
Since 2002, the FBI and local law enforcement agencies have rescued about 100 children identified as possible victims of juvenile sex trafficking in Northern Nevada, Higginbotham said. That number does not include the adult women being trafficked, which experts say would be impossible to produce because many women don't acknowledge that they are under the control of a pimp.
"The number of children recovered each year has steadily risen," she said. "However, we believe that these figures significantly under-represent the problem in our area."
Chalmers heads the Reno Police Department Street Enforcement Team, or SET, that focuses on these types of crimes. As a detective about 10 years ago, the women arrested in undercover prostitution investigations were generally in their 30s to 40s who were drug addicts, he said.
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But today, the prostitution demographics are completely different, he said.
They're much younger than they used to be, he said. The average age of the girls rescued in 2012 was 20 to 21 years old, he said. Police make contact with 16- and 17-year-old girls on a regular basis, he said. Some are as young as 12.
"A significant number of what we see, 80 to 90%, are being exploited - forced into the lifestyle," Chalmers said.
The branding, or tattooing, of prostitutes - one of the more disturbing trends - reveals sex trafficking for what it really is, he said, which is modern-day slavery.
The Nevada Legislature during the 2013 session passed a measure that redefined the crime of pandering. It made human trafficking a serious offense that carries tougher penalties.
Some victims have reported that their pimps moved from selling drugs to selling humans because the punishment was less significant, Short said.
The passage of Assembly Bill 67 will help law enforcement, Chalmers said.
The new law, which went into effect July 1, made trafficking an adult a category B felony that carries a three-to-10-year sentence. Exploitation of a child is now a category A felony that carries a maximum life sentence. Parole eligibility for those cases depends on how young the victim is.
The crime is much more prominent in Las Vegas, where Clark County (Nev.) District Judge William Voy hears these cases every Wednesday. About 2,230 children were saved from sex trafficking in Las Vegas since 1994, officials said.
"Many of these girls are chronic runaways, and they need special supervision," said Voy. "I can't detain them, so with this population, we need some way to hold them. They don't see us as helpful. Sometimes the pimp is the only one who has paid attention to them."
Voy said one solution to the detention problem is building safe houses for the girls. If they have a place to go and can learn about other options, they won't have to return to the pimp, he said.
Those types of homes are available in Sacramento, Calif., but there are no safe houses in Reno. For that reason, Awaken Inc. has been raising money through private donations and a grant to build a transitional home for sex-trafficking victims in Reno, Holland said.
"A transitional home for adults will fill a huge need of having a safe place for adult victims until other placement arrangements can be made," Short said. "Currently in Nevada, to my knowledge, we do not have a placement that specializes in the treatment of minor victims of sex trafficking."
Making the victims safe is the first priority, Short said.
"Many of our survivors are hungry, have had little sleep and also benefit from medical care," she said. But through education and training, many in the community are responding and raising awareness, so there is hope, she said.
Help for Victims
Organizations working to stop and raise awareness of sex trafficking:
Project Stay Gold: www.projectstaygold.org
Big Brothers Big Sisters:www.bbbs.org
End Child Prostitution and Trafficking: www.ecpatusa.org
Martha Bellisle, Reno Gazette-Journal