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Underage sex trafficking is everywhere local law enforcement looks, but will their budgets hold out?

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On any given day, the 19-year-old takes to the streets, turning tricks for cash to feed her heroin habit. She's long bounced between sex work, jail, and unsuccessful stints in treatment.

Melissa Lujan, an HIV and AIDS outreach worker who makes her rounds delivering condoms and bleach kits to the city's call girls, says the girl's a wreck: doped up and difficult. "She's only 19 years old now and she's absolutely a mess. A complete mess," Lujan says as we drive through the city's West Side.

Lujan says she's put out calls to clinics and shelters across the city to see where she might be able to place her if she is ever willing to accept help. "All the response I got was, 'Oh, we know her. She's a very difficult client. Good luck.' Then, click."

Driving across the city, Lujan sighs with every sex worker she spots. If the 19-year-old is difficult, it's no wonder. Lujan says the girl was forced into sex work as a child by a mother who sold her to neighborhood men to feed her own addiction. The girl contracted HIV and hepatitis C by the time she was 13. "You hear the same thing again and again: gang affiliated, mom's an addict, father's an addict, parents were incarcerated," Lujan says. "We view these girls as just your average prostitutes now."

With a concerted push from state lawmakers over the past three years, led largely by San Antonio's Democratic state Senator Leticia Van de Putte, "trafficking" has become a buzzword of sorts in Texas. With the inaugural meeting of the statewide task force in 2010 and a U.S. Department of Justice-funded Bexar County trafficking task force, officials warned of waves of foreign nationals being hustled across the border and into Texas strip clubs, tea houses, and massage parlors, "stables" of women sold like cattle by heartless pimps (See "Land of the lost," June 16, 2009). Lately, however, their focus has turned closer to home: to local kids bought and sold for sex right under our noses, be it runaways turning tricks to survive or teens kept in line by pimps employing violence and drug addiction. "It should shake you to the core to think that modern day slavery is happening here in our community, in our state," Van de Putte told the Current. Local officials and advocates say they've begun to unravel cases involving young victims that the system should have caught much earlier. Many local children, they fear, continue to be labeled as habitual truants, delinquents, or runaways rather than identified as victims of abuse that are simply trying to survive.

Even in the cases of the only two successful prosecutions of child sex traffickers by the Bexar County District Attorney's Office the teenage girls were rescued not by police department stings or high-profile takedowns but by a juvenile probation officer finally asking the right questions of kids stuck in lockup on unrelated charges. "Two years ago, I wouldn't have known how to go about identifying someone who's a victim of domestic minor sex trafficking," said John Moran, head of the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department's gang supervision program. "Now we know they were there, in our system, but we just didn't realize it."

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