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Seen and Heard

Researchers work with underage sex trafficking victims to identify new ways to assist exploited children and prevent others from entering the abuse cycle.

Research  |  Sep 20, 2018  |  By Vaneh Darakjian
two women standing next to empty road

Criminal justice professor Alexis Kennedy, right, and Ph.D. candidate Kelly Stout are helping those in the court system better understand the victims of underage sex trafficking. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services) 

Some sins are inexcusable, even in Sin City. UNLV criminal justice researcher Alexis Kennedy and Ph.D. candidate Kelly Stout study one in particular: underage sex trafficking.

The problem plagues Nevada, which ranks as one of the top 10 worst states for human trafficking, according to National Human Trafficking Hotline statistics. Since 2011, Kennedy and Stout have been working to understand how underage sex trafficking happens, why it happens, and most importantly, how to stop it.

Between 1994 and 2016, 2,794 minors were removed from sex trafficking situations by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, according to the 2017 State of Youth Homelessness in Southern Nevada research brief by the UNLV Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.

“Most police officers are helping, but we do have officers who don’t recognize that these 13- and 14-year-olds are victims,” Stout said. “We don’t have safe houses or other options, so we put them in jail, but arresting children for things they’re forced to do is incredibly wrong.”

In 2013, Kennedy and Stout interviewed 52 sex trafficking victims in detention centers to learn about their childhood, how they came to be exploited, how they were treated when they were arrested, and more.

“Everyone thinks sex trafficking victims come from broken homes, but there are instances where mom’s a nurse, dad’s a banker, siblings are in college, and you have a child who’s just been seduced,” Stout said. “This can happen in any family, broken or not. And these victims are afraid for their lives and for their families.”

In late 2015, Kennedy received more than $623,000 in U.S. Department of Justice grant funding to continue combating human trafficking and supporting survivors. The grant has enabled Kennedy and Stout to interview 40 more survivors of human trafficking so far. These survivors are between the ages of 18 and 24. They connected with Kennedy and Stout through the Center 4 Peace, Las Vegas’ only drop-in center for sexually exploited youth, and Awaken, a drop-in center for exploited youth in Reno.

“For two decades, I've been a researcher trying to tell a story no one wants to hear,” said Kennedy, who recently received UNLV’s Community-Based Research Award for this work. “This grant allows me to give a voice to youth who are surviving unimaginable levels of violence, social isolation, and stigma. These young survivors just want to be heard, without judgment, while highlighting their resilience.”

And in listening, Kennedy and Stout are gathering the data that offer an undeniable portrait of the consequences of underage sex trafficking and guiding policy reform to affect change. The interviews typically last 60 to 90 minutes. Questions include everything from “Tell me about your childhood,” “Did you ever run away as a kid?” and “How do you feel about yourself?” to “How did you get involved in sex trading?” and “What was your scariest experience?”

“Some of them will tell us about the violence they experienced—guns, knives, beatings. Some stories are absolutely horrendous,” Stout said. “But a lot of them have huge dreams. Several want to be in the military. A huge chunk of them want to be psychologists and help other girls.”

Kennedy and Stout are working two researchers from Johns Hopkins University—Michele Decker, associate professor of population, family, and reproductive health and Andrea Cimino, faculty research fellow at Johns Hopkins’ School of Nursing—on the latest portion of the research. They’ve also employed multiple human trafficking survivors as research assistants on the project. The next phase, an online survey of additional victims, is currently underway. Once the team receives the completed surveys, transcribes the interviews, and analyzes the data, they’ll submit their report to the Department of Justice.

“Part of what we’re doing is looking for common themes among the survivors,” Stout said. “So far, 70 percent have said they were involved in Child Protective Services. So we wonder, could CPS have been in contact with them and done something sooner? We’re also looking at how survivors got out and what resources helped them so we know how to help other victims in the future.”

The grant will conclude in September, but the work will be far from over for Kennedy and Stout.

Stout’s dissertation will examine the first court for commercially sexually exploited in the nation, which is in Las Vegas. She’s reviewing and coding 10 years of court data on 1,200 children to uncover key trends and indicators of future involvement with the court, such as age, type of offense, previous involvement with Child Protective Services, and more. Her hope is that her data will inspire those in the position to intervene to help these children before they become victims.

Kennedy will also continue advocating for victims through her research and hopes that others will start looking more deeply at another important aspect of underage sex trafficking.

“Much unspoken predatory behavior is coming to light now through #metoo and the sexual harassment backlash,” Kennedy said. “I hope the spotlight turns next to the guy next door who stops to buy sex from children on his way home. These predators represent the economic engine driving this exploitation.”