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

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The reality is there's no large, empirical study gauging the prevalence of child prostitution, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. No one really knows how many juveniles are sold for sex across the country. Estimates on child prostitution range from 1,400 a year (FBI Uniform Crime Report data) all the way to 2.4 million, an oft-cited figure lifted from dated and questionable research largely based on hunches. According to Finkelhor, none of the espoused estimates are based on strong data. Instead they hinge on "educated guesses or extrapolations based on questionable assumptions."

While the feds collect national data, the U.S. Department of Justice itself concedes "comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking." A 2006 DOJ study that analyzed FBI data found the system caught 1,400 children engaged in prostitution in one year, though that number's widely seen as a low-ball. "In truth, not many law enforcement agencies are actively arresting youth in regard to this problem," he says. Most, he says are arrested for other crimes — like drug possession, curfew violation, or others. While the data may be plausible, he says, "no one believes this estimate fully characterizes the problem."

Aggregating state and local law enforcement data, the Texas trafficking task force reported in 2011 that 369 children had been identified as domestic minor sex trafficking victims in the state between 2007 and 2011. University of Texas at San Antonio social work professor Bob Ambrosino and two dozen of his students made a documentary on the local minor sex trade last year. They hit the streets for a month, filming at a furious pace to capture stories of active and former sex workers, finding most had been forced into the trade as minors. In late November, they screened an hour-long documentary, titled Behind Closed Doors: Voices from the Inside, for local social workers, professors, victims advocates, and policymakers. "Based on what we found, I feel it's a grossly underreported problem," Ambrosino said. "Part of what we discovered is that a lot of the professionals, whether health care, police, or what have you, were just not sensitized to the problem. When you've got a minor that's picked up for prostitution, there's probably something else going on there," he said.

It took until 2010 for Texas' handling of juvenile prostitution to change from a system that viewed delinquents in need of prosecution to one that recognized children in need of saving. That year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a 13-year-old runaway girl, sentenced to 18 months probation after she was caught offering to give an undercover Houston cop a blowjob for $20, couldn't be charged with selling sex. "Children are the victims, not the perpetrators, of child prostitution," wrote then-outgoing Justice Harriet O'Neill. The state estimates that between 2006 and 2009, an average of 63 kids a year were arrested on prostitution charges in Texas. San Antonio police arrested just 16 minors for prostitution in the past decade, according to police records obtained through a state open records request.

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