Underage sex trafficking is everywhere local law enforcement looks, but will their budgets hold out?
Published: February 8, 2012
In 2009, Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department, prodded by the task force, implemented a new, more comprehensive screening process for juvenile defendants: a series of more probing questions about the child's exposure to sex and violence. Moran was stunned by the results. So far, about 90 minors in the system have been flagged — all, he said, showing the warning signs of a trafficked or sexually exploited child. Since they began the more comprehensive screenings, the department's confirmed and sent 22 cases to local law enforcement for further investigation and possible prosecution. One, Moran says, was a girl who ran away at 15 after being sexually abused by her father. She hooked up with a group of adult men who, in time, became her pimps, moving city to city selling the girl to johns. When pressed, some of the children even began to divulge information on detailed ledgers tracking the johns and the cash, Moran says. "That indicates to me that there were ongoing clients for some of these kids."
But while the local task force brought increased awareness, education and training, the resources that made them possible are already collapsing.
"I'm exhausted, my referral resources are exhausted. And that applies to virtually every agency in Texas," Lujan said. "What's it matter if I find these girls on the street if there's nowhere I can take them?"
Last year, Bexar County lost the $1 million federal grant that had funded the task force. A last-minute infusion of $200,000 from a state grant is keeping the unit — and its two full-time investigators who handle about 50 cases annually — afloat through most of 2012. It won't even come close to covering the victim services funded in the past, however.
The half-million-dollar grant enabling Project Carinó at the Center for Health Care Services, a program providing intensive substance abuse and mental health counseling for local women, most of whom were sold for sex as children, may also phase out this year, according to program director Briseida Courtois. And the area's only specialized shelter for domestic trafficking victims, Embassy of Hope, closed last May after private donations dried up and Director Elizabeth Crooks was unable to secure grant funding.
Meanwhile, two forces on the front lines of the fight against child exploitation, public schools and Child Protective Services, have been drastically impacted by state funding cuts, points out Chris Burchell, a former sheriff's department investigator who handled Bexar County's first child sex trafficking cases before founding the nonprofit Texas Anti-Trafficking in Persons. As the school took a multi-billion-dollar hit, the Center for Public Policy Priorities estimates Child Protective Services' 2012-2013 budget is 10 percent below what the agency said it needed to manage its existing case load. Lawmakers specifically cut child abuse and neglect prevention programs by 44 percent.
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