Throwaway kids: What to do with teenage prostitutes?

Photo: Kim Johnson Flodin

Miranda is 14 years old and angry as she stands in court. She’s spent a month in juvenile detention, even though she wasn’t charged with a crime. No, this time Miranda’s locked up because she agreed to testify against her pimp, and juvie is where she must wait for the trial to start—it’s the only place in Clark County for a young victim witness with a history of running away.

So she waited. Then the trial was postponed. More waiting. Then, two days before Miranda was due in court, her pimp took a deal. He pleaded guilty to pandering in late February and avoided trial. Miranda spent 38 days in juvenile detention, and never testified.

Here’s what the jury didn’t hear: Miranda was 13 when Metro vice cops caught her milling outside a truck stop on Tropicana Avenue last August. She was wearing a short brown dress. She climbed into a passing car. Police pulled the car over. Miranda said the driver was paying her $30 for a blow job. Then she started to sob.

Miranda came to Vegas from LA with her pimp and another prostitute on a Greyhound bus—she turned tricks to pay for their tickets. Now she was working Tropicana to pay for their motel room. She had to make $500 a night or her pimp, Tony, denied her food and sleep. Miranda said Tony bought her from another pimp two months earlier. He gave her clothes, a fake ID, and a warning: Charge at least $80 for sex, make clients buy condoms, and work for me or die.

Miranda is a ward of the state in California. She has no family to go home to. When she didn’t want to turn tricks, Tony beat her, then sent her to the hospital under a fake name. So when Miranda agreed to help vice detectives build a case against Tony, it was a tremendous thing—not just the brave choice, but also the hard choice.

Like many juvenile prostitutes, Miranda was up against a legal system that would hurt her before it helped her.

Juvenile prostitutes are technically criminals. Juvenile prostitutes are also victims of crime. When they’re caught soliciting, or loitering in casinos after hours, they’re arrested and taken to juvenile hall. They’re being punished. But they’re also, in some strange way, being protected. Hundreds of juvenile prostitutes are caught in Clark County every year; most are from out of state, many are foster-care refugees or runaways, almost all work for a pimp.

If they’re not arrested and detained, they make bail and flee. They’re either in trouble with the law or in trouble on the streets. They’re victims being punished for their own good, which feels pretty bad.

At any given time, roughly half of the girls in Clark County’s juvenile detention are there on prostitution-related charges, Judge William Voy says. Most will remain in detention at least two weeks, while their cases wind through the system. Some will stay longer.

Nobody likes this arrangement—not police, not prosecutors, not public defenders. But this is how it must be, because of a very simple problem: There just aren’t enough places to put these girls. Juvenile detention is the only secure housing option.

Sure, there are a few local facilities where juvenile prostitutes can live, waiting for trial dates or transfers home, but these places are hardly ideal. They’re not designed for child sex workers—if therapy is offered, it’s certainly not tailored to the specific needs of juvenile prostitutes. More importantly, perhaps, they’re not lock-down facilities. Residents can leave. This means the girls must want to stay in a court-mandated home for delinquents (and what teenager would?) They must resist the urge to run back to their pimps—which sounds easy, until you remember that most were only selling sex because there was a pimp, with a lot of power over them, pulling the strings. Or throwing fists. Or both.

Girls living in these facilities have been known to bolt into the idling cars of pimps waiting outside—running right back into the abyss of abuse.

“These girls are so broken. They identify with the girls they work with, the pimps. [Prostitution] becomes their safe area, and they want to go back to where they feel safe,” says Susan Roske, Clark County chief deputy public defender. “We want to hang onto them, to keep them from running, and sometimes the only way to do that is in a secure environment.”

The first time Miranda was arrested, she was transferred from detention to an open group home. She spent a few weeks there, then ran. It wasn’t long until vice cops picked her up again. This time, it was decided Miranda would be held as a material witness in the case against her pimp—and because she had a history of running, she would be locked up.

Wednesday mornings are reserved for juvenile prostitution cases in Judge Voy’s courtroom. One by one, the girls stand before the Family Court judge, some shuffling in prison slippers with their hands cuffed—criminals, and victims.

They range in age from 12 to 17. Some cry, some stand blank-faced, some fume, some smile demurely—almost flirting. Different girls with the same problems: Many are repeat vice offenders, are addicted to drugs, are victims of childhood abuse, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, are in love with their pimps, are combative and uncooperative, are utterly without family. Many are teen mothers, too.

Voy listens, but doesn’t have many options. He gets 3-5 new juvenile prostitution cases a week. Around 60 percent are from out of state and wanted home on additional charges, or by child-welfare officials. Voy sends them back, bracing for the boomerang, when they wash up in Vegas again.

With local girls, or girls without ties to other states, Voy can send them to one of a few group homes in Clark County. Or he can send them to programs in Arizona and California that cater to juvenile prostitutes. But these are all open facilities, best suited for girls who want out of the game—and many do not. (Or can not, not without more help.)

a 16-year-old stands before the courtroom of Judge William Voy during the juvenile sex offender calendar.

Voy’s last resort is Caliente Youth Center. It’s a state boarding school for kids in trouble with the law, 150 miles from Las Vegas, remote enough to discourage running away. But it’s hardly a healing environment. Most juvenile prostitutes see the Youth Center as a kind of punishing exile—and they’re not entirely wrong.

It’s no secret that Voy and his Family Court colleagues are frustrated with the lack of placement options, the lack of tailored therapy programs, and the feeling victims are being punished. For five years, the judge has been trying to open a new facility in Clark County—Voy calls it a “safe house” for sexually exploited children. He’s teamed up with Roske, from the public defender’s office, as well as the district attorney’s office, child advocates and Metro police—groups that all agree that a safe house must be built.

So far, all they have is a rocky patch of land.

In architectural renderings, the safe house could pass for a Summerlin mansion. It would be the only program of its kind in the country. A house for juvenile prostitutes, staffed by mental-health providers, where the primary goal would be psychological healing.

Oh, and it would also be staffed by juvenile probation officers—people who would detain girls if they tried to run. The safe house would be a “staff secure” facility, a place where law-enforcement officers stand in for steel bars and lock-downs. Girls would not be allowed to leave. This is what makes Voy’s safe house unique, and, so far, impossible to build.

Voy has lined up enough donors to get the house built for about $2 million in charitable contributions, he says. The problem, however, is that donors don’t want to give until they know the safe house is certain—and the safe house won’t be certain until Voy can find the money to pay for the probation officers.

Voy figures he’d need eight probation officers on staff to secure the house at all hours. He estimates this would cost $750,000 a year at the most. It has to be law-enforcement officers who can legally put their hands on girls, Voy says. Moreover, as government employees, their presence links the safe house back to the justice system.

Approaching juvenile prostitutes as victims, and providing therapy instead of punishment, would address the core issues that keep juvenile prostitutes on the street, Roske says. Moreover, Voy suspects girls living in the safe house would be more inclined to help police go after the real criminals—the pimps.

Still, when Voy asked county officials to cover probation officer’s salary, they balked. And that even before the budget crisis.

Since then, Voy has been looking for another revenue source—something that, unlike donations, is stable enough to provide a constant salary base. The latest plan entails approaching the Legislature for an added tax or fee to generate the funds. Of course, this means waiting until the next session, and banking on politicians in the middle of a fiscal drought.

Nonetheless, Voy, and Roske—who is also working to get the house built—say they’re confident it will happen. They’ve just got to get the message out.

To that end, Voy has been featured in national TV news stories about juvenile prostitution—pieces that often open the way this story did: With a girl ripped right out of Voy’s courtroom. The typical, horrible, everyday scenario. The fact that Miranda’s story isn’t unusual, or particularly extreme, is the real horror. The fact that she may know it, meanwhile, is almost unspeakable.

“These girls are what you call throwaway kids,” Roske says. “Nobody wants them, nobody loves them, and they know it.”

After her 38 days in juvenile detention, Miranda was released to a residential treatment program. If Voy never sees her again, it could be a very good sign. Or a very bad one.


Abigail Goldman

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