Sex trafficking survivor Rebekah Charleston was scared she might never live to see her 21st birthday after her pimp sold her to the local brothels as punishment if she wasn’t working enough.
“Honestly, I didn’t have hope for a future that didn’t revolve around my body being sold,” she recalled. “It’s a hard existence (for victims).”
She was trafficked for 10 years, provided through escort services, arrested multiple times and finally got out of the life in 2009 but said that doesn’t happen “magically” for survivors. Like others, she was coerced into believing an illusion.
“I think a lot of people get confused about Nevada and have this happy hooker myth and think your pimp or your trafficker isn’t with you all the time, and if you wanted to leave, you could,” Charleston shared in video testimony. “That’s just not the truth.”
Wednesday was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Local agency Xquisite hosted the event with law enforcement partners from the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit (HEAT), messages from U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Reno’s Charleston Law Center attorney Jason Guinasso.
Brenda Sandquist, executive director of Xquisite, said Charleston’s message reinforces Nevada can be a leader in investigating and prosecuting those who are trafficking and in providing resources to the victims.
Ford said as of 2020, more than 24.9 million worldwide are subjected to human trafficking, with Missouri topping the nation and Nevada number two based on per capita cases. Ford said Nevada’s place is not a statistic to be proud of and still receives “goosebumps” every time he hears Charleston’s story.
“Human trafficking represents a threat to international peace and security but also undermines the rule of law,” he said. “It robs millions of their dignity and of their freedom.”
Victims and survivors often refuse to cooperate with law enforcement due to mistrust, but implementing a victim- and survivor-centered approach to the investigation and prosecution of traffickers can rebuild Nevada’s reputation as a safe haven, he said.
He also said he hopes to see greater support to address the problem through the Nevada Legislature this session.
“The lack of victims and survivors’ centers is a major problem here in the United States, and it’s a major problem in our state,” he said. “Victims are provided housing, employment, training and counseling in other states. This year, during the session, I’d like to see the Legislature earmark some funds for grants to organizations that can provide resources specifically to victims and survivors of human trafficking.”
Sgt. Scott Smith said the regional HEAT Unit has made approximately 301 arrests since it was formed in January 2020. In 2019, two detectives helped to make 17 trafficking arrests while working other narcotics cases. But as the unit formed the following year with five Reno Police Department members, 66 arrests were made, going up to 72 in 2021 and increasing to 146 in 2022.
Smith said the unit has added through negotiations a detective from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office and as of this week a detective from the Sparks Police Department. HEAT expects to add a detective from the Washoe County School District as well as the University of Nevada, Reno Police Department.
Smith said 84 recoveries of victims and survivors have been made since the unit’s formation.
“We do a lot of training with law enforcement and community groups,” Smith said.
Guinasso spoke of the positive relationship generated through the legal system, with advocates, service organizations, law enforcement and government officials working to “create a consensus” to change policy and solve the community problem of trafficking. He said Xquisite’s services have helped victims like Charleston to redefine and reengage themselves once their records are expunged with legal help, as well as repair their credit if debt is taken out in their name.
Charleston said it’s not easy for victims to start from scratch, and in her case, she started from “less than scratch” but thanked those who have supported her.
“I honestly believe Nevada can change its narrative,” she said. “Our community needs organizations just like Xquisite raising awareness but also providing those necessary resources to each and every survivor they come into contact with. … Healing from exploitation is not a linear journey. It’s up and down and it is difficult, and without supportive people, there’s no way I could have made it.”
For information, visit www.xquisite.org.
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