Katie Couric Reports: "The Lost Girls"

Behind the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip, there's a seedy underworld.

"So how many dates tonight?" a vice investigative officer asks a girl.

"Seven dates," she said.

"Seven dates - and you're getting 100 bucks a date?" asks the agent.

The girl nods.

"The reality is that a lot of people come to Las Vegas and they think that prostitution is legal," said Lt. Karen Hughes with the Las Vegas vice squad. "So when they come here and it's an adult playground they think that kids are for sale."

Some of the kids are as young as 12 - part of a massive workforce of prostitutes, some 35,000 strong, who operate in casinos, clubs, hotels and the streets along the Vegas strip, reports CBS News anchor Katie Couric.

CBS News spent one night with an undercover vice squad from the city's police department. Six women were arrested in five hours - two of them were under 18.

"How come you're down on the strip this hour of the night?" asked an agent.

"I was just walking," said a girl, sobbing.

"There are a lot of bad things that can happen out here to a girl your age," the agent said.

Tina - who CBS News disguised for her own safety - used to be one of those girls. Raised by an absentee mother who worked as a call girl, she was lured into prostitution by a pimp posing as a rap star looking for girls to star in a music video.

"I remember turning my first trick at 12 years old, and after that it was kind of like a whatever thing," Tina said. "I did it once, I might as well do it again."

By 17, Tina was strung out on drugs, had been arrested several times, and was being abused by her pimp. She hit rock bottom.

"I looked at myself in the mirror one day, and I didn't even recognize myself," Tina said. "I just cried and said, 'What am I doing with my life?' I didn't care about anything. I didn't want to live anymore."

After her last arrest she was placed in a group home where a former prostitute helped her find a job and get off the streets.

Tina's story is hardly unusual. Underage prostitution in Sin City is on the rise. In the last two years nearly 400 girls under the age of 18 have been arrested or detained by the Vegas vice squad. Half the pimps arrested this year had prostitutes who were underage. And these girls are not all from Nevada - 60 percent come from other states across the country.

"I believe now that children have become a commodity for these pimps no different than drugs and running guns," Hughes said. "They're just reusable."

Reusable and caught in a vicious cycle. Because they're underage, the girls aren't jailed. Instead, they're temporarily placed into detention centers or group homes where resources are limited. As a result, 80 percent run right back to the streets and into the arms of their pimps.

For Judge William Voy, this is unacceptable. For the past four years Voy is the only judge presiding over the "teen prostitution court" in Las Vegas .

His frustration shows.

"How is the system failing these kids?" Couric asked.

"We are failing these children because we're failing to recognize the problem," Voy said. "We get one jurisdiction that deals with the problem effectively, they just move them somewhere else. You need a concerted nationwide effort - you need national attention to this."

A small plot of land on the outskirts of Las Vegas is where Voy hopes to build a model for the nation. He wants to establish a specialized safe house staffed by probation officers and social workers who can de-program girls who believe pimps are their protectors - a place where the girls are not permitted to leave.

He's driven by faces he sees every day - part of a generation of young lives already destroyed before they've even had a chance to grow up.

"See that 12 year old, or 13 or 14 year old standing in front of you, and you look at that child and go, 'Oh my God, this is what's happening to you and been happening to you?' I can't let that persist," Voy said.

The recession has put his vision on hold. So the lot sits empty. And in the city of bright lights, countless teens live in the shadows, with the odds against them and nowhere to turn.

Until public funds become available, Voy is looking to the private sector to fund his safe house. To learn more about the safe house, click here.

For more information:
  • Protection of Sexually Exploited Children (in Nevada)
  • Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth
  • National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
  • Children of the Night
  • Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS)
    • Katie Couric

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