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New team forms to fight sex trafficking in Las Vegas Valley

Updated February 7, 2019 - 5:19 pm

A new team of law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups will work to combat sex traffickers and assist victims in the Las Vegas Valley, the team announced Thursday.

The Clark County district attorney’s office helped launch the Southern Nevada Sex Trafficking Multidisciplinary Team, with the hope that it will strengthen efforts to identify, investigate and prosecute sex traffickers and support children and adults who were recruited or forced into the industry, a statement from the office said.

“It literally does break lives of victims,” Chief Deputy District Attorney James Sweetin told news media Thursday.

Efforts to form the team began about a year ago as a result of conversations between the district attorney’s office and local law enforcement officials on how to tackle the issue.

“We saw very significant holes in the system which investigates and prosecutes these crimes,” Sweetin said.

The Metropolitan Police Department already has a task force for human trafficking in its gang/vice bureau, but the task force’s manager, Elynne Greene, said the new team helps authorities examine cases through different lenses and discuss how to improve their response.

The team gives the Clark County School District and victim groups a say in the conversation, which wasn’t necessarily the case before, Greene said.

“So what we’re really doing now is making this our issue, as opposed to it’s a law enforcement problem or a prosecutor issue,” she said.

Sweetin said the collaborative efforts should ensure that offenders are prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law” and victims’ needs are met.

Victims suffer trauma as a result of their trafficking, Greene said, so medical and mental health services, education, transportation and emotional support are on the laundry list of needs.

“It’s almost like taking a newborn and helping them to build confidence and take those steps,” she said.

One of those service providers, the Salvation Army’s Seeds of Hope program, offers a 24-hour hotline over which advocates assist victims and provide them services, such as clothing, extra shoes and transportation to safe places, program representative Brittany Hopballe said.

But not all victims accept services, and they sometimes get “lost in the system” as a result, she said. She hopes the new team will give victim-centered groups the chance to express to law enforcement how to support those people during the prosecution process.

“That’s how things are really gonna change, is just kind of bringing everybody together and not having us all in our different pockets,” Hopballe said.

Metro Capt. John Leon said law enforcement agencies sometimes have a “silo mentality,” creating communication gaps, and sometimes the needs of victims are overlooked.

“It creates a more holistic approach for the victim to be able to get those types of services,” said Leon, who oversees the gang/vice bureau.

In 2018, Metro investigated sex trafficking cases involving 139 adults and 123 children, more than half of whom lived in the Las Vegas Valley, Leon said.

Agencies in the program include the Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas, Clark County School District, UNLV and College of Southern Nevada police departments; the FBI; The Children’s Advocacy Center; the Salvation Army Seeds of Hope program; The Embracing Project; the Rape Crisis Center; the state attorney general’s office; and the U.S. attorney’s office.

Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter.

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