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

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Van de Putte often recalls the case of a 16-year-old runaway from Oregon who was arrested in South Texas on drug possession and prostitution charges. Repeat hospitalizations and severe health problems brought him to San Antonio for medical care. In 2006, Van de Putte got a call from a worried doctor at University Health Science Center. "I remember the physician telling me, 'I really just don't think this child could have endured these types of injuries willingly,'" she said. The boy, malnourished, showed signs of chronic abuse and had internal injuries so severe that his bowel had to be surgically re-sectioned. When authorities looked closer, they found the boy had been doped up and forced to have sex with as many as 10 men a day. The pimp threatened to kill the boy's younger sister if he didn't do as he was told.

The next year, Van de Putte pushed for the state to mandate sex-trafficking training for all law-enforcement officers, something the law-enforcement community balked at. "The response was just, 'Oh, these kids are just prostituting themselves for drugs.' Amazingly at that time law enforcement just did not have that sensitivity," she said. Her bill failed, but lawmakers ordered the attorney general's office and the Texas Health & Human Services Commission to study human trafficking in the state — both international and domestic. The report zeroed in on law enforcement's failure to identify and assist minor victims. By 2009, Van de Putte pushed for and got the first state-level legislation to assist domestic victims by training law enforcement and creating the statewide Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force.

With two successes now under its belt, the Bexar County DA's office is slated to try two more high-profile child sex trafficking cases this spring. And officials expect even more coming down the pike. Kirsta Melton, a family violence prosecutor in the DA's office who started handling the county's trafficking cases in 2008, says she's seen nine victims so far, all young girls, and hopes to prosecute some 40 defendants. "My gut tells me there's a sub-population of kids like this in San Antonio that are just under the radar," she said. One of the successful prosecutions involved a victim born to a heroin-addict mother on San Antonio's Westside. The child got her start in a dumpster. According to her grandmother, the mother threw the child away when she was born and extended family literally had to fish her out of the trash. The mother would later die of an overdose; the father molested her. After she ran away from home at age 11, she met Elizabeth Delgado, a downtown San Antonio prostitute, according to prosecutors. For the first few days, Delgado helped care for and feed the girl, but then she told the girl she had to pull her weight. She taught her how to start turning tricks. After a few months taking "clients," the girl ran away again, only to bounce in and out of foster care and juvie. By the age of 15, she stumbled across Julian Maldonado, a reported Mexican Mafia member on the Westside who began pimping her out to neighborhood johns. Maldonado started feeding the girl drugs to keep her placid, according to attorney Melton, who prosecuted the case.

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