Teen prostitutes have friend

Judge William Voy’s first defendant of the day is a baby-faced girl who has just turned 13.

She also just violated probation on prostitution charges, having run away again from a Las Vegas group home and gotten arrested in Los Angeles — for prostitution.

“The police officer just picked me up for no reason,” she says.

The girl smiles sweetly at Voy and comes across as perfectly comfortable, thank you, in her detention center-issued purple sweatshirt and handcuffs.

“I don’t know if I believe you at this point,” Voy tells her.

Welcome to teen prostitution court, Voy’s standing once-a-week appointment with various young girls caught up in something very grown-up and ugly.

Or, as Voy prefers to call it, “sexually exploited youth court.”

“These girls are victims, and should be treated as such,” the Family Court judge said Wednesday morning before court.

That doesn’t mean Voy goes particularly easy on the girls. He doesn’t hesitate, for example, to send repeat runaways and probation violators to the state reformatory in Caliente, about 140 miles north of Las Vegas.

He also doesn’t worry much about keeping girls locked up in the juvenile detention center until he figures out something better for them.

“Where else are we going to put them, a hotel? At least the food’s not bad” in the detention center, Voy says. “At least they’re not being abused back there.”

A few days more in the detention center is exactly what the 13-year-old gets, time for a social worker to find another place for her.

The girl also gets a simultaneously stern and kind lecture from Voy.

“The easiest thing for me to do would be to cut you loose,” he tells her. “You know why I’m not? All these people here, we care about you and want you to be safe.”

“She’s run away twice in two months,” Voy tells the girl’s public defender. “We’ve been lucky enough to get her back each time in one piece and alive, not in the coroner’s office. I’m really scared for her. My little runner is not going to run again.”

But Voy really wishes he had someplace else for the girls. Someplace safe but not institutional. Someplace homey but with doors that lock from the outside.

“They need a secure, safe environment,” he says. “We need to get them out of the detention center, need time to assess their needs and figure out something that will work for each individual kid.”

That’s why he’s been working for years with others in the juvenile justice world on a “safe house” idea for girls caught up in prostitution.

Voy managed to get an architectural firm to create pro bono renderings and blueprints for a 7,500-square-foot home, which he shows off in his office.

Voy says he’s already been pledged a five-acre parcel of Bureau of Land Management land on which to build the home.

Now he needs to figure out how to staff and fund such a facility, how to persuade area municipalities to support it.

A local safe house for the girls is also what was recently recommended by Shared Hope International, a Virginia-based nonprofit working to prevent sex trafficking and provide support for boys and girls in the industry.

Shared Hope released a report earlier this month calling Las Vegas a major hub for the sexual trafficking of children and saying the city doesn’t have nearly enough services to help them.

“They need therapeutic placement instead of jail,” said Linda Smith, president and founder of the nonprofit.

She supports Voy’s vision and said if such a safe house were built, it could serve as a model for communities across the nation.

In the meantime, girls will continue to trudge back and forth between Voy’s courtroom and detention in their sweatsuits and handcuffs, listening intently as the judge, public defenders, probation officers and social workers talk about what to do with them.

The options are limited: a group home, the state reformatory in Caliente, a treatment center for adolescents with behavioral or substance abuse problems, or a shelter for abused and neglected kids.

Or back to the detention center for a few more days, until a decision can be made.

Voy says more than 300 girls have appeared in his courtroom over the past two years.

About 60 percent are from out of state, many with juvenile records in their own hometowns.

Some can be sent home.

A disturbing number are wards of the state.

One smirking 17-year-old tells Voy she was “taken away” from her parents when she was 2 years old.

Many are mentally ill, or intellectually disabled, or have been abused in every imaginable way, damaged maybe beyond repair.

They have pimps on the outside, who tend to get punished much less than the girls, if at all.

Some girls show up in court pregnant or already have children somewhere.

Others are violent. The group home and shelters refuse to take them.

The 17-year-old got picked up at Treasure Island. She told police she was 19 and gave them a fake name.

A ward of the state of California, the girl had gotten in trouble there for vandalizing her group home.

“I was under the influence,” she tells Voy.

He asks how long she’s been involved in prostitution. She waits, and finally says six months. But she can’t keep a straight face.

Voy smiles, repeating the now-familiar refrain: “I don’t know if I believe you.”

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis @reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0285.

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