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

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For law enforcement, the concept of "human trafficking" is still a relatively new one. The feds didn't recognize it until 2000 when Congress passed the Trafficking Victims and Protection Act. It took until 2008 to put domestic victims under that umbrella.

Burchell likens the growing awareness to that surrounding domestic violence. After decades of inattention, advocates and law enforcement slowly built an infrastructure to identify and support victims of domestic abuse, while lawmakers acted to make abusers easier to prosecute. "Basically, mamma gets beaten by a drunk or whatever at the house, we have everything we need to remove her, house, clothe, and feed her. And we can put that guy in jail, then put him out on the street with protective orders," he said.

States are still scrambling to build similar network for young victims of sexual exploitation, he says.

The prospect of domestic minor sex trafficking has also forced officials to ask hard questions about how the system deals with prostitutes more generally, Melton says. "I think when we arrest these women [involved in prostitution], we have an obligation to begin to talk to them about what's going on. … A lot of times if you find adult prostitution, you find a child component there."

But the criminal justice system is often unforgiving, says Courtois of Project Carinó. Sex workers with multiple arrests, often for a mix of prostitution and drug abuse, are still frequently dismissed as degenerates, prejudices that keep past exploitations from surfacing. "We've heard a judge say this in open court, that 'You're nothing but an addict and that's all you'll ever be,'" Courtois said. "When you have a system telling them this over and over, they start believing it. … The problem is, we've realized like 70 percent of our women were victims of exploitation. As kids they can remember their parents, family, or someone exchanging them for sex with men."


Tackling domestic minor sex trafficking also means confronting uncomfortable connections, says Elizabeth Crooks with Embassy of Hope. Like many anti-trafficking advocates, Crooks squarely blames a hyper-sexualized society and points to legal sexually oriented businesses — including strip clubs and the "barely-legal" internet porn sites — as breeding grounds for child exploitation. "Many of the girls I've seen have worked in quote-unquote legal establishments. Dancing or porn or whatnot," she says. "I don't care what you say, that has a dark side. … Girls that are underage aren't doing it of their own will."

"Jessica" ran away from a well-off Northside San Antonio family to start stripping at a Northside club at age 17. "They wanted to snatch me up before I turned legal and some other club got me," she says. After a few weeks of dancing, club owners told Jessica they'd fire her if she didn't start "taking care" of customers in the back room. Eventually, they sold her out for sex on a routine basis. A heroin addiction and boyfriend who brutally beat her when she didn't bring home the cash kept her involved. "I was just stuck. I'd go in night after night and just want to die," she says.

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