Nicole Reilly, ombudsman for the Committee on Domestic Violence of the Nevada Office of the Attorney General, left, is introduced by Xquisite Executive Director Brenda Sandquist during her opening remarks for National Human Trafficking Prevention Day in the Nevada Room at the Governor’s Mansion on Jan. 25.
Photo by Jessica Garcia.
People come from all over the world to join in Nevada’s famous mantra, “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,” Xquisite Executive Director Brenda Sandquist told more than 120 in the Governor’s Mansion’s Nevada Room. But when someone’s plans go wrong and they end up in human trafficking or other illegal activities, word of these things doesn’t stay in Nevada.
Sandquist said she wants to continue to change Nevada’s narrative as being among the highest states in the nation for human trafficking.
Xquisite gathered with multiple partner agencies in the community to recognize National Human Trafficking Prevention Day on Jan. 25. The day is celebrated annually Jan. 11, but the event had to be rescheduled due to weather. Carson City also recognizes the importance of fighting against human exploitation and eliminating problems with sex trafficking throughout the month of January. Xquisite volunteers placed blue bows along Carson Street earlier this month.
The adjustment created some complications for the lineup of previously arranged speakers to attend in person. Nevada representatives U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez-Masto and Jacky Rosen provided comments on video about their efforts in the fight against human trafficking.
In his video, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford addressed the misconceptions many have in the state’s tourism industry flying into the larger destination hubs Las Vegas and Reno in a video message. Ford said worldwide, there still are 24.9 million adults and children who are victims of trafficking, and Nevada maintains one of the highest rates in the nation.
“There are those who assume no rules apply,” Ford said. “…And it creates potential confusion around prostitution laws in our state, where prostitution is lawful and legal and regulated. It creates an environment with challenges to address in human trafficking.”
With direct flights through both major cities and travelers driving along the Interstate 80 in Northern Nevada, at least 5,000 individuals are illegally trafficked in Nevada every year, studies have shown, Ford said.
Ford spoke about Assembly Bill 143 from 2021’s Nevada legislative session that established the Nevada Human Trafficking Coalition designed to help a designated specialist and maximize resources for local task forces. Ford said the coalition began meeting last year and said he was excited to see the outcomes of this work.
Assemblywoman Angie Taylor, D-Reno, was among the speakers attending in person. A former member of the Washoe County School Board, she first became aware of the issue and made it one of her bill draft requests to revise the language in state law so that the punishment is harsher for someone who is profiting from sex trafficking a minor.
“There are sex trafficking victims in every high school in Washoe County — every high school,” Taylor said. “And because we know it doesn’t matter where you live — it doesn’t matter if you’re in Washoe, if you’re in Clark, if you’re in Esmerelda, right? But it’s impacting where you live. … So I would venture to say it’s in every high school in our state, and it’s also in many, many of the middle schools.”
Taylor encouraged residents to do more to mitigate exploitation of any kind.
“They say, ‘When you know better, you do better,’ but awareness is not always enough,” Taylor said.
The regional Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit, which addresses commercial sex trade crimes and child exploitation, consists of local law enforcement agencies, including the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, Reno Police Department, Sparks Police Department, the University of Reno Police Department, the Washoe County School District Police Department and Pyramid Lake Police Department, which recently joined the fight, according to RPD Sgt. Kellie Dunn.
Victim operation recoveries from HEAT in 2020 when the unit was first founded totaled 15, including four juveniles and six adults, Dunn said. In 2023, HEAT officers recovered a total of 83 victims, including 31 juveniles and 52 adults. But Dunn said she felt the team wasn’t even “scratching the surface” with all the tips they were receiving, and HEAT received 419 tips from all sources, including Secret Witness, police departments and survivors who sought information about human trafficking.
“We’re becoming more effective and more collaborative with entities tracking our juveniles … but I don’t think this number is even close to what is out there,” she said. “It’s going in all of our schools. It doesn’t discriminate.”
Sandquist said she would like to help make Nevada known for more than its usual mantra with all of its outdoor recreational opportunities and pristine landscapes such as Lake Tahoe available.
“Consider that not everyone can do everything, but everyone of us in this room can do something, and it’s us doing something together,” Sandquist said. “…To thrive, that’s our opportunity we extend to you today.”