Nevada Attorney General’s Office strives to fight national human trafficking issue | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada Attorney General’s Office strives to fight national human trafficking issue

Jessica Garcia
jgarcia@nevadaappeal.com

MORE ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING

Nevada Attorney General’s Office: http://ag.nv.gov/Human_Trafficking/HT_Home/

Federal Bureau of Investigations: https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/civil-rights/human-trafficking

National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733 Awaken Reno: www.awakenreno.org

Childsafe.ai" target="_blank">Text">Childsafe.ai: 877-256-0897, https://childsafe.ai

The Nevada Attorney General’s Office is pushing to be at the forefront of a national effort to eliminate human trafficking in the Silver State.

Attorney General Aaron Ford and his staff, in partnership with U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, hosted two human trafficking trainings — Monday at the Center in Las Vegas and Tuesday at Western Nevada College in Carson City. More than 200 law enforcement officials, prosecutors, social workers and health services professionals came to learn about Nevada law, online trafficking, accessing resources and services for victims and to receive updates on a national sex buyers initiative.

The conference explored the latest trends buyers are using and techniques agencies are employing to identify where transactions are occurring, to treat the victims and the buyers and to find opportunities to shut down trafficking permanently in Nevada and beyond. Participants in the summit also saw how leading experts are using the Internet to limit child exploitation through online or digital platforms.

Ford, who provided opening comments at the summit, called human trafficking a crime that “threatens the heart” of American freedoms.

“As a community, we must actively work to know what drives human trafficking so we can be more effective at stopping it,” Ford said.

new model for the nation

The industry experts who came to the summit provided demonstrations, facts and alarming statistics about human trafficking. Their knowledge correlated with the demand reduction model and what’s being done to reduce trafficking at the county level in other states.

The demand reduction model, previously called the Nordic model, has a specific focus on treating the buyers, or johns, who pay for services and engage in sex or labor trafficking so they’re not just thrown into a jail cell indefinitely, Nevada Attorney General ombudsman Nicole O’Banion said. The initial arrest might be important, but more is needed to actively deter them from re-entering the lifestyle and preying on victims again.

“The model is about making sure there’s enough services for victims when they’re ready to leave the life, hold the buyers accountable and then also provide treatment and rehabilitation for the buyers as well,” said O’Banion, who works on the Nevada Committee on Domestic Violence and specializes in sexual assault, domestic partner and trafficking issues and who helped to spearhead the summit.

The model offers three major components: prevention, justice and restoration.

Jurisdictions in which it is implemented would focus on training first responders and their communities on how to identify warning signs of trafficking and how to report it and create public awareness campaigns. They would strengthen state and federal laws to hold buyers accountable, protect survivors and work with local agencies to make eradicating trafficking a priority. Finally, they would implement programs and join with community partners, such as shelters, health care providers, educational centers or other outreach organizations, to provide basic needs and evidence-based treatment for sex buyers.

O’Banion said the demand reduction model will help to bolster law enforcement agencies’ abilities in tracking and finding buyers and give social workers new treatment options for survivors.

“Really, what (these speakers) gave our state was how to (implement this model) in practice … and the exciting thing is jurisdictions that have shifted their entire criminal justice system to using this model,” O’Banion said.

Monica Moazez, Nevada Attorney General communications director, said while the threat of an arrest often is a deterrent for the buyers, the model helps because it explores in detail their behavior and what’s needed to truly remove them from the lifestyle.

“You don’t just arrest them and throw away the key,” she said. “This fits really nicely into what we want to accomplish … and our office is using every tool at its disposal, be it through prosecutions, educational campaigns, a contingency fund and putting money in these service providers’ hands and into the hands of victims, be it through legislation.”

‘It’s happening’

The Federal Bureau of Investigations cites human trafficking — which includes sex trafficking of adults and children and the forced slavery or servitude in domestic environments through coercion, threat, deception or abuse of power — as the third-largest criminal activity in the world. There are an estimated 40.3 million victims, or more than 13 times Nevada’s population, according to the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that specializes in human trafficking initiatives. That figure has doubled from 20.5 million worldwide from three years ago, Moazez said Wednesday.

“It’s not some made-up problem in our community,” Moazez said. “It’s notoriously underreported, and that (40.3 million) is probably a low ball.”

The numbers concerning child victims are of equal concern to Ford and his staff. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington, D.C. has stated that about 300,000 children fall victim to commercial sexual exploitation in the United States at an average of about 13 to 14 years of age, usually starting at 12.

In Nevada, considered to be a major destination for domestic minor sex trafficking, many deem Las Vegas the major hub for both sex and labor trafficking activities, but Ford, his staff and the summit’s presenters Monday and Tuesday all emphasized these activities go on in the rural and metropolitan areas.

“(People) don’t really believe it’s happening,” Ford said, later adding, “I’ve been AG for 10 months now, and at least three times, Nicole’s went out into the middle of the rurals to go get these victims.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline website (humantraffickinghotline.org/state/Nevada) reported in 2018, 313 trafficking cases were reported to total 3,072 cases since 2007. Top industries for labor trafficking included domestic work, traveling sales crews, agriculture, health and beauty services and education. In sex trafficking cases, hotel/motel-based venues, escort services, residence-based commercial sex, street-based and online ads or unknown venues were the most likely venues or industries. The majority of the reported cases included female victims with 239 reporting.

Ford said with such a prominent problem where public safety is at stake, having conversations to make the community aware of the problem is an important step.

“It’s really about public safety … and it’s a very dynamic problem,” he said. “And while we live in a Silver State, there’s no silver bullet. We have to take a robust and comprehensive approach.”

PROVIDING RESOURCES

Ford, who previously served as majority leader of the Nevada Senate and in other capacities in the Legislature before taking office this year as attorney general, prioritized a reinvigorated, coordinated emphasis on assisting domestic violence and sex trafficking victims.

“I wanted to be able to provide the resources for them (the staff) to continue working on these things, but it’s not a new focus,” he said.

This week’s conference was Ford’s first major statewide initiative as attorney general. Through O’Banion’s efforts after attending a conference in Washington, D.C., she was inspired to bring national experts to Nevada. The summit included Childsafe.ai founder and CEO Rob Spectre of Brooklyn, Benjamin Gauen, senior deputy prosecuting attorney of King County in Seattle, Marian Hatcher, policy analyst and victim advocate from Chicago’s Cook County Sheriff’s Office, and others, all of whom came without charging a fee for their time, O’Banion said.

Participants also heard from prominent Nevadan voices who serve as victims’ and children’s advocates in sex trafficking, sexual assault, exploitation or other violent crimes. Melissa Holland, executive director of Awaken, and the Attorney General’s Office staff members Alissa Engler, senior deputy attorney general and children’s advocate, and O’Banion also presented.

“They’re all incredibly passionate about it and are on the ground, doing the work, implementing everything they are presenting, and that was what so exciting,” O’Banion said. “They all work together across the nation — Seattle, Massachusetts and Brooklyn — and really what they gave our state was how to do in practice. It wasn’t just a theoretical presentation. It was how to implement and utilize this model to shut down trafficking in our jurisdiction, which is the entire state of Nevada.”

This week’s summit was Ford’s first major initiative and the AG Office’s first to highlight trafficking on a broader scale since former Attorney General Cortez Masto’s term ended in 2015.

Cortez Masto, speaking during Monday’s conference in Las Vegas, previously introduced legislation creating a program to train law enforcement officials to rescue at-risk trafficked children. Now, she is involved in efforts to pass the Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act to address missing, murdered and trafficked Native American women.

“We continue to work hand in hand with (Cortez Masto) and her office … and so we will continue to work together to pool resources to combat this (issue),” Ford said.

Ford said using Nevada’s legislative process also has played a key role to guide Nevada’s counties in producing more convictions. The Nevada Senate this year oversaw the passage of Senate Bill 7, which revised provisions in regard to the solicitation of a child for prostitution. The bill includes stronger penalties for sex buyers and allows for undercover stings in which a person can solicit a peace officer posing as a child or one who is assisting a peace office by posing as a child. First offenses are now category D felonies and third offenses are non-probationable B felonies.

“I think the main focus of that conversation was primarily underaged youth and the lack of true deterrents when all you get is a citation,” Ford said, emphasizing the need for more restorative means of helping the johns, or the buyers, who actually engage in trafficking.

SB360, or the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Prevention Act, was another result of this year’s session. The bill prohibits a person from the manufacture or sale of products.

Continuing education itself is an important means of helping to reduce the threats to trafficking victims and to break the cycle of buyers, Ford added. The summit, he said, was a valuable first step in offering new resources to the professionals who attended. O’Banion said prosecutors in particular were excited to attend and to learn about chatbots, which are text messaging systems that send out decoy messages to prevent buyers from accessing victims.

“They (prosecutors) get disheartened if they don’t get the conviction (on a trafficker); there’s just another trafficker waiting in line to take over the crew,” O’Banion said. “What got them excited about it is when you shift the focus to the buyers, that’s such a fast way and an easy to start shutting down the entire industry and there’s no need for the supply, so the prosecutors were lit up. They felt like they could make a difference now regularly and consistently by going after the buyers, and the bots, the way they set up the conversations, they get all the evidence they need in that conversation.”

‘We WILL Do Better’

The summit itself was an important step toward educating state professionals in combating the problem, Ford and his staff said, but the work must continue, and everyone can help somehow to end human trafficking.

One of the AG Office’s most important tools, O’Banion said, actually was created in 2013. The Human Trafficking Contingency Account was established by Nevada Revised Statute 217.530 and is administered by the director of the Department of Health and Human Services. At the time, O’Banion said, no funds had been allocated to the account, and the Attorney General’s Office decided to host a fundraiser and generation donations for it. The account is authorized to be used for fundraising up to $10,000 or 10 percent of the amount at the beginning of the fiscal year, and there is no limit to be disbursed to victims.

The initial fundraiser was so successful, it became an annual event and it soon will be hosted for its seventh year. All money donated directly benefits victims of trafficking, whether they need medication, travel or other needs. One provider, faith-based nonprofit Refuge for Women, offers homes for exploited women in five states, and there’s always a bed open. O’Banion said part of the office’s work is to empower victims such as these by paying for their travel to go to a home like this if needed, and Refuge for Women also provides a choice to the victims to go where they want to start the process of healing for them.

The contingency fund has no state or federal restrictions, providing the aid to victims quicker, she said.

“We got a victim off the streets down in Vegas at 8 in the morning, and by 6 p.m. that night, we had already received the approval from the trafficking fund and we got her on a plane at 6 that night back to her family,” O’Banion said.

She said the importance of the account already has impressed the speakers who came to the summit, and now she seeks to get in touch with other attorneys general offices in other states to offer assistance in setting up similar accounts.

“We’re no longer working in silos in states,” she said. “Together, we’re serving these victims.”

Ultimately, Attorney General’s Office representatives who collaborated on the summit and continue to provide assistance for the state’s agencies and professionals working to end trafficking said the hope is to share their successes and strategies with other states.

Ford said he was pleased by the summit’s outcome.

“Eradicating human trafficking is an ambitious goal, but one we must each commit ourselves to fulfilling,” he said at the summit. “And we should always keep this in mind regarding our victims of crime: We can do better, we must do better and we will do better.”