Healing center for child sex trafficking victims faces funding challenge

By: - January 11, 2023 6:36 am
master plan of St Jude's Healing Campus.

Rendering of St. Jude’s Healing Center, which will provide a variety of trauma-focused therapy treatment options as well as services to address needs like job training. (Rendering courtesy St. Judes).

Nevada, especially Las Vegas, has long been identified with sex trafficking, and that includes child sex trafficking. Even though Nevada’s population is only about one-fourth the size of Pennsylvania’s, in 2017 the two states were tied at 9th for the states with the most reported trafficking cases – the vast majority of which are sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center

And the FBI has identified the Las Vegas metro area as one of 13 “High-Intensity Child Prostitution Areas” in the U.S. 

In the first six months of 2020, the Las Vegas Metro Police Department (LVMPD) identified 59 children who were sex trafficked — four of them were 13 years or younger, according to a 2020 report by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services  (DHHS).

LVMPD did not provide newer data when requested in time for publication.

Many of the children tracked in the DHHS report were reported as runaways or missing.

Four years ago, St. Jude’s Ranch For Children announced the launch of the Healing Center, the first of its kind residential home for children who were sex trafficked. In October, they broke ground on the 10-acre project in Boulder City with an estimated completion by summer 2024.

The facility was originally budgeted at $15 million. But supply shortages, inflation, and modifications to architectural designs and other cost adjustments, many of them caused or exacerbated by the years-long COVID-19 pandemic, has ballooned the budget to $25 million, according to St. Jude’s. 

 “Over the several years, the cost of the project has gone up,” Christina Vela, St. Jude’s Ranch for Children chief executive officer, said, describing the additional expenses as “things none of us could have anticipated at the inception of the project.”  

Donors to the project have included Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts, The Cosmopolitan, Aristocrat Gaming, Nevada Elks, Gene Haas Foundation, Baker Foundation, Fletcher Jones Automotive, Ritter Charitable Trust, Shapiro Trust, Greenspun Family, Vegas Valley Infusion, UFC, the Venetian, and the Englestad Foundation, as well as individual donors, Clark County and the Clark County School District.

“There is a lot of responsibility there for every business in our community that benefits from the public in any way,” Vela said. “I am proud to say I do believe there has been a shift in corporations that benefit from tourists that are committing not just in their words but their actions.” 

While several area resort corporations are among the donors, some of the largest are not, including Wynn Resorts, Resorts World and its parent company Genting Group, and Station Casinos and its parent company Red Rock Resorts. Representatives of those companies did not respond to requests for comment.

“For those that haven’t yet, now is the time,” Vela said. “I am grateful for those relationships that are budding, but for those who haven’t, we are putting the pressure on them. We’re highlighting very publicly those properties and corporations that have committed and you can’t help but notice where the void is.” 

Casinos, hotels, and large entertainment companies like the UFC have long been identified as carrying some responsibility for fostering an environment and culture where the commercial sexual exploitation of children, many of whom are young girls from 14 to 17, and some as young as 11, flourishes. 

“It is an interesting time, in that UFC has former and existing athletes that have been involved,” in human trafficking or supporting those accused of human trafficking,” Vela said. 

Earlier this month former UFC fighter and self-proclaimed “king of toxic masculinity” Andrew Tate, who has said women bear some of the responsibility for being raped and only dates 18-19 year-olds, was arrested in Romania for sex trafficking. (Days earlier Tate achieved notoriety beyond his podcast’s young male fanbase when he launched a hostile tweet at climate activist Greta Thunberg and asked her for an email address so he could tell her more about his cars’ “enormous emissions.” In response, Thunberg urged him to email the information to “[email protected].”)  

“People behave a certain way but corporations have to show commitment to things, and we have to have these really courageous conversations about what it is about business or culture that tolerates bad behavior,” Vela said. 

A first of its kind facility

People under the age of 18 who are kidnapped, coerced, forced, or manipulated into the sex trade for economic gain are considered part of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) population.

While some programs in the U.S. provide residential housing for the CSEC population, the St. Jude’s facility in Southern Nevada will be the first campus to focus on the unique mental health aspects that these children face as an aftermath. 

The Healing Center program includes a variety of trauma-focused therapy treatment options like talk therapy, art, and music therapy as well as services to address needs like job training and a youth leadership program. 

“These children are not broken,” Vela said. “We’re not trying to rescue them, we’re trying to empower them.” 

The Healing Center is just one part of a larger infrastructure that Nevada is building to address and serve the CSEC population. In 2019, state lawmakers decriminalized childhood sex trafficking victims which goes into effect this July.

And under state legislation passed in 2019, Nevada will establish  CSEC Receiving Centers in both Northern and Southern Nevada for children who were sex trafficked. 

Nevada would be the third state in the nation to have these centers, said Esther Rodríguez Brown CSEC Statewide Coordinator and founder of The Embracing Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to youth who experienced sex trafficking.

People behave a certain way but corporations have to show commitment to things, and we have to have these really courageous conversations about what it is about business or culture that tolerates bad behavior.

– Christina Vela, St. Jude's Ranch for Children


Creating housing while training social services, law enforcement, and casinos to be more trauma-focused toward the CSEC population is imperative to helping solve the problem. 

It’s about being understanding to a child who experienced trauma and practicing patience, Brown said, adding the children may not see themselves as being victimized. 

Factors putting children at risk of sex trafficking include being involved in the child welfare system, juvenile justice systems, housing insecurity, homelessness, immigration status, and adverse childhood experiences like domestic violence, household substance abuse, physical and sexual abuse, and families with untreated mental illness. 

Warning signs that children are being trafficked include large amounts of cash, being found at hotels or strip clubs, an older significant other or close attachment to an older adult (possibly including an abusive parent or guardian), and having STIs or other medical conditions, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“I think one of the most important things people can do is set a standard of love and safety in their own life because kids are watching,” Vela said. “If they’re watching adults compromise what safety looks like it’s hard to tell them not to engage in that behavior if, in their own home, these things are happening —if there are violence, domestic violence, or substance abuse challenges.” 

The Englestad Foundation is matching the next $2 million that is donated to the Healing Center.

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Camalot Todd
Camalot Todd

An award-winning, investigative and enterprise reporter, Camalot Todd has over seven years experience in print, digital, radio and TV journalism.